I drove down to the lower part of the Italian boot—to Campania’s Salerno hills—in hopes of discovering some great wine truth.
After all, the velvety, spicy red made by the Salerno area’s leading estate, Montevetrano, is one of my favorite southern wines—despite its odd Franco-Campanian blend. Launched in the early 1990s, Montevetrano is about half Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with Campania’s potent native Aglianico, as well as Merlot.
Montevetrano’s owner is Silvia Imparato, 74, a one-time globetrotting photographer who has taken portraits of characters from writer William S. Burroughs to Burgundy vigneron Henri Jayer. She must have a wine vision to communicate, I figured.
In September, I met Imparato at her home, an aristocratic 18th-century hunting lodge with views over green rugged hills to the Tyrrhenian Sea. The 60-acre estate, now with 15 acres under vine, was purchased by her grandfather—a wood merchant and importer—as a country refuge for the family just before the outbreak of World War II.
Imparato began the wine estate (named for the castle ruin on a nearby mountaintop) on a whim. The seed was planted one evening in 1983 while she was out with friends and acquaintances at a wine bar in Rome, where she lived as a divorced, single mother.
“We were drinking a lot of great Bordeaux like Château Lafite and Haut-Brion from the 1959 vintage,” recalls Imparato, who had no wine training. “I was a little drunk, and I said, ‘I am sure we can make this kind of wine at Montevetrano.’”
Imparato’s pals took her statement as a call to action: They would help her make great wine at Montevetrano. Fortuitously, the group included a young Renzo Cotarella, the talented Antinori winemaker who is now managing director of Marchesi Antinori.
“We began with Renzo and friends as a joke,” Imparato says, walking down a hillside path shaded by holm oaks and into her Cabernet vineyards. “We were just thinking to make wine for friends.”
The group helped her to think about and restructure her vineyards. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were grafted onto old vines of Barbera and lesser-known regional varieties. Aglianico was trimmed down from its old pergolas and retrained to the lower-yielding Guyot system.
Imparato was aided by a son of one of the estate’s former sharecroppers, Domenico “Mimi” La Rocca, who became Montevetrano’s estate manager and eventually cellar master.
Bit by bit, wine became a more serious venture. Imparato moved from Rome to run Montevetrano full-time. In 1988, Cotarella introduced her to his older brother, Riccardo, who was at the start of building a formidable consulting career, and he became Montevetrano’s winemaker.
New vineyards were planted on some land previously used to grow wheat, a patchwork of slopes and clay limestone terraces. To test the waters with critics and the trade, tiny amounts of two vintages were produced: the 1991, which was 90 percent Cabernet with Aglianico, and the 1992, to which Merlot was added. Montevetrano’s first commercial release was the 1993 vintage, with 250 cases. It was an immediate success.
“Montevetrano became a myth because it was a great wine from Campania, which was known for mozzarella and tomatoes, and it was made by a woman, who was a photographer,” Imparato says as she walks through the vines and laughs. “People said, ‘Oh, she must be beautiful!’”
“In the ’90s, the television crews came here, and they were disappointed that I was not an actress,” she remembers. “Now in the last 10 years, things have changed. Campania is respected.”
Unsurprisingly, Imparato was and still is a colorful character—a small-statured bon vivant who, up until a few years ago, smoked Churchill-style Havana cigars.
By 2000, she had moved her Bordeaux-fueled fantasy from her villa across the road to a small purpose-built winery, and its style was evolving. “The first vintages were fruit bombs,” she says. Her team had already begun deploying gentler extraction techniques and had reduced the amount of new wood barriques for aging. Over time, the Montevetrano blend shifted more to Aglianico, 30 percent in recent vintages to Merlot’s 20 percent.
Imparato says she long wanted to make a single-variety Aglianico. At Cotarella’s suggestion, with the 2011 vintage, the winery began bottling a second, much lower-priced red called Core, a 100 percent Aglianico made by Cotarella with grapes sourced from Campania’s high interior in Benevento. In 2015, the winery launched a Core White made with Greco and Fiano grapes from the same area.
But Montevetrano’s star remains its unusual estate blend, which currently fills about 2,000 cases annually and almost always score 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings.
“It’s a wine of this place,” Imparato says. “Aglianico on this terroir is savory and salty. Cabernet here has no bell pepper taste, but a hint of black pepper. Our Merlot has a little bit of herbs, like oregano.”
In the last year, Imparato has been joined by her daughter Gaia Marano, who lives in Milan and worked decades as a graphic designer, but has changed her life to be part of the family business.
Over lunch with her wines on the villa’s shaded veranda, Imparato reflects on her own path.
“Life is something that lives. It changes. You cannot control your life—you can only live it,” she says, and then delivers a pearl of wisdom. Not the wine insight I was looking for. But a pearl nonetheless.
“Life,” she says, “is much stronger than you are.”