Naples’ Volcanic Wines

Around the ancient southern Italian town, unique native wines are made amid still-active volcanoes

Naples’ Volcanic Wines
Smoldering plumes of sulfurous gas still rise from the Solfatara volcanic crater in the Campi Flegrei area of Naples. (Robert Camuto)
Oct 6, 2022

The first morning I woke in western Naples’ Campi Flegrei area, the view from my hotel terrace seemed paradisiacal.

Looking down the verdant hillsides, I took in the late-summer panorama of the glistening Gulf of Naples framed by the islands Capri and Ischia.

Then I noticed the smell: A putrid odor of rotten eggs seemed to have crept in on the morning breeze.

I quickly learned from other guests that this was not the fault of bad plumbing or pollution, but is the natural calling card of one of Europe’s largest active volcanic zones.

The Campi Flegrei (or Phlegraean Fields) is one giant smoldering super-volcano, with dozens of craters spread over about 80 square miles—much of that within the densely populated city limits of Naples, one of Europe’s most historic and chaotic metropolises. In the nearby countrysides are craters that look like large mining pits, where fumaroles release potent-smelling sulfurous gas.

Talk about volcanic terroir! In recent years, volcanic soils have become a hot topic in wine. But aside from Sicily’s Mount Etna, many of these so-called volcanic places haven’t been active for thousands of years.

At the other end of the spectrum of activity, Campi Flegrei is in a class of its own.

“This is not like Etna where you look up and see the volcano. Here you live in the volcano,” declares Gerardo Vernazzaro, the 46-year-old winemaker at his family’s Cantine Degli Astroni winery, named after the spent crater—now covered in forest and turned into a nature reserve—that sprawls miles below its oldest vineyard.

Naturally, there is a kind of fatalism here. Predictions are that one day it will catastrophically all blow up again. The last big eruption here, nearly 500 years ago, created the 430-foot Monte Nuovo over one week, and that mountain has slowly grown in height over the last 50 years. The once-chic Roman resort of Baiae, where Julius Caesar had a getaway, sunk into the sea following a seismic shift after the fall of the Empire. It’s now an underwater archaeological park.

Perhaps because the earth moves so much here, Campi Flegrei wines—principally the light Piedirosso reds and the local version of the white variety Falanghina—tend to be drunk quickly and locally.

“The wines here were born with the concept of carpe diem,” says Vernazzaro. “The idea is: Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow.”

 Gerardo Vernazzaro checks out some of Cantine Degli Astroni's Piedirosso grapes as the family winery approaches harvest time.
Winemaker Gerardo Vernazzaro of Cantine Degli Astroni checks on the Piedirosso grapes, which handle hot summers well and are typically are harvested in October. (Robert Camuto)

Piedirosso makes some of the most appealing, easy-drinking reds I enjoyed this summer. Also known as Per e Palummo, Piedirosso is grown throughout Campania, including on Ischia island. Fresh, with low-to-moderate levels of alcohol (12 to 13.5 percent), the wines show red fruit and spice, becoming more savory and minerally as they evolve over time.

The image comes to mind of Gamay with a suntan.

Piedirosso—actually a family of related vines of different biotypes—is a late-ripening variety harvested in October that doesn’t seem to mind even record-breaking hot summers like 2022.

“Piedirosso is like we Neapolitans,” Vernazzaro says. “It likes the heat and sun.”

Astroni is in its fourth generation of farming here. Starting with the 2000 vintage, when Gerardo was finishing enology school up north, the family created a commercial label to market their wine. Astroni’s Piedirosso Campi Flegrei bottlings both come from the organically certified Camaldoli vineyard of volcanic sands and tuff stone. The Colle Rotondella bottling is fermented with native yeasts in stainless steel, and the Tenuta Camaldoli is made from a selection of grapes, from the vineyard’s best-exposed sections, that are fermented in cherry wood vats and aged in chestnut barrels.

Campi Flegrei wines can be hard to track down outside Italy but can be worth the effort. Some of my favorite Piedirossos from the zone are a pair of intense riservas by Cantina del Mare, produced under the family home of Gennaro Schiano.

Schiano, 50, is a self-taught, third-generation, small producer who launched his label with the 2003 vintage. All his vineyards—the most dramatic of which are just above the Mediterranean coast in volcanic pebbles and sand—are planted ungrafted, or without phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Both his Sorbo Rosso and his old-vine Terra del Padre bottlings are deeply nuanced and slightly rustic, with balsam and spice—defying Piedirosso’s fast-and-facile image.

 Schiano
Working with old Piedirosso vines planted on their own roots, Gennaro Schiano is giving his red wines more depth than is typical of the variety. (Robert Camuto)

After most of a day in Campi Flegrei, I headed over to the southern slopes of Mount Vesuvius on the other side of Naples to meet another regional leader, Massimo Setaro.

Setaro, 54, scion of the Setaro pasta-making family, launched his Casa Setaro winery in 2004, below his family home in Trecase, using vineyards owned by his mother and father. A telecommunications engineer, Setaro quit his post for more than a decade as he built his winery and replanted vineyards—all of which are ungrafted. Once Casa Setaro was established, he returned to his day job.

“I’m lucky that I don’t have to live off wine,” he says with a laugh.

Piedirosso from his vineyards, which are perched above Pompeii in volcanic pebble–laced soils, takes on slightly richer qualities. Vesuvius’ principal appellation is Lacryma Christi (literally “Christ’s Tears”); its once-storied red and white wines have fallen into obscurity in recent decades, now often sold “not as wine but as gadgets to tourists,” Setaro laments.

Setaro has made some delicious progress here with a pair of varietal Piedirosso reds, as well as a Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio riserva called Don Vincenzo, which is blended with 30 percent of Campania’s powerhouse red, Aglianico.

Setaro’s vision and hope is to restore the bygone luster of Vesuvius and Lacryma Christi. “The idea is to do the same thing as on Etna,” he says, explaining his idea to show the expressions of terroir based on different types of volcanic soils and different altitudes.

So far, it’s been a lonely cause.

 Massimo Setaro standing in front of his vineyard with a mountain in the background
Along with Piedirosso, Massimo Setaro is working with a rare native white grape variety called Caprettone. (Robert Camuto)

While Etna is nearly constantly erupting, Vesuvius has been geologically sleeping since the last eruption in 1944. The same can be said for the respective wine scenes. With few producers based on Vesuvius, and little support structure, the region doesn’t have nearly the kind of wine scene that developed on Etna in the early 2000s.

“Etna went faster because it attracted investors and visionaries,” Setaro says. “Vesuvio remained [a place with] farmers who are isolated with their little pieces of land.”

For his Lacryma Christa whites, Setaro has helped lead the revival of Vesuvius’ unique-in-Italy Caprettone, a vibrant white variety that was only identified in 2014. (Previously it was believed to be a clone of another Campania white, Coda di Volpe.)

From the limited number of wines I’ve sampled, Caprettone wines are born fresh, citrusy and floral and develop herbal, honeyed and nut flavors with time.

“Caprettone has a complexity that today we are just beginning to understand,” says Setaro, who produces two still Caprettone varietal wines. One, called Munazei, is aged in steel, and the other, called Aryete, is fermented and aged with grape skins in a mix of clay amphorae and large oak barrels. He is the first and only producer making a classic-method sparkler with the grape.

It’s easy to get caught up in Setaro’s enthusiasm.

“I make wine for passion,” he says, “and not to abandon the work of my parents.”

Vesuvius, I think, needs at least 20 more vignerons like him. That would make for a truly explosive scene.

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