I was hot and thirsty one late afternoon in the ancient city of Benevento, in the middle of the ankle of the Italian boot. So I walked up to the shaded terrace of a café for something cold.
“Some San Pellegrino,” I called out in Italian to the barman standing in the doorway.
“Bianco o rosso?” he asked. He apparently thought I wanted wine, possibly confusing my request for water with the famous Marsala-based Sicilian producer Pellegrino.
No, I responded, San Pellegrino, the fizzy water. With ice cubes and a slice of lime.
I sat at an empty table, and a couple of minutes later, the Pellegrino arrived in a clear, stemless goblet. The ice cubes and the lime bobbled so tantalizingly I wanted to dive in.
I sipped down the water. Then I asked how much I owed.
“For water?” The barman shrugged. “Nothing.”
In most places the size of Benevento, a city of roughly 56,000 people around 40 miles inland from Naples in the hills of Campania, this would not have been the answer. The bigger and more bustling the city, the more I would have paid.
After many years of traveling in Southern Italy, I am still surprised by acts of unexpected hospitality and kindness to strangers. It’s like a point of pride—a way to show they are not part of the rat race.
After I left the bar, I went scouting for a place for dinner that evening, a Tuesday when many restaurants were closed. On a backstreet, I found an inviting-looking spot called Teresa Paparella, with its chef-owner standing out front.
When I asked about a table for that evening, he said, “Fine, but right now I am going for a coffee. Do you want to come for a coffee?”
And off we went to another bar around the corner for an afternoon espresso and an exchange of life stories. He was an electrician who quit his trade to pursue a cooking passion; about a year ago, he opened the restaurant with his daughter. After we downed our shots of caffeine, he left coins on the counter for both of us.
So why do I recount all this? To set the scene in Benevento province which now roughly coincides with the once-larger, historic region of the Sannio—strategically positioned in antiquity as an important passage connecting Naples on Italy’s western coast with Puglia on the eastern, Adriatic Coast.
The Sannio is also a wine appellation that has had a success story with Falanghina, one of Campania’s great white varieties that was just rediscovered less than 50 years ago.
To complicate things, there are really two known white grapes in Campania that share the name Falanghina. An aromatic, expressive version called Falanghina Flegrea hails from around Naples, specifically the vast (dormant) volcanic seaside area known as Campi Flegrei. The Falanghina Beneventana variety, from around Benevento, makes more structured, taut wines.
“The two types have nothing to do with each other; they are called Falanghina, but they are completely different genetically,” explains agronomist Anna Chiara Mustilli, 59. She is one of two sisters who help run the historic winery Mustilli in the tidy, ancient town of Sant’Agata de’ Goti, along the Isclero River.
Mustilli is fundamental to any discussion of Falanghina because Leonardo Mustilli, the father of Anna Chiara and her sister Paola, brought it back from near extinction to where it is today.
In 1960, Leonardo, a hydraulic engineer and son of a noble family that had managed sharecropping lands here since around 1700, decided to dedicate his life to winemaking. He started in the ancient cellars accessed through a floor hatch in the family palazzo.
Up until then, most 20th-century Sannio area vineyards were planted to Tuscan and international varieties that were vinified and sold in bulk for blending by bottlers in regions to the north. But Leonardo began researching and experimenting with varieties indigenous to Campania.
“He said, ‘Why do we need to produce wines for Tuscany and Piedmont [négociants]?’” recalls Leonardo’s widow, Marilì. “‘We need to produce our wines.’”
Leonardo was impressed by Falanghina’s potential and in 1979, Mustilli bottled the first “Falanghina,” though it actually contained both varieties.
Much has changed in four decades. In the 1990s, Falanghina exploded in popularity, released in varying quality levels, styles and flavor profiles.
Twenty years ago, the family moved its winemaking to an old apple warehouse at the edge of town. In 2011, the Falanghina del Sannio appellation was created. Leonardo passed away in 2017.
Over time, the Mustilli sisters have replanted their vineyards to the Benevento version of Falanghina. “I always preferred the Falanghina Beneventana,” says Anna Chiara. “It’s more structured. It has more acidity, and it’s more complex.”
Today Mustilli produces about 8,000 cases annually from about 37 acres farmed sustainably, without insecticides or herbicides. They produce a pair of Aglianico reds, along with a pair of Piedirosso varietal reds, a Greco white and an Aglianico rosé sparkler.
But Mustilli remains synonymous with quality Falanghina, which comprises half of its production. The winery makes two still versions fermented in stainless steel: a crisp Falanghina del Sannio and a juicier, fuller-bodied, single-vineyard bottling called Vigna Segreta, made with light skin contact and prolonged aging on the lees. A fun refresher of a Falanghina sparkler with a pop-top is refermented in bottle without disgorgement.
After a morning of walking through vineyards and the winery with the Mustilli sisters, I sat down to taste their wines in the family’s old palazzo. Paola put a Crosby, Stills & Nash vinyl on a small phonograph and brought out slices of cheese and sausage.
After we were done tasting, we went on a tour of the palazzo, dotted with family oil paintings that now appear on the labels of Mustilli’s top wines. Marilì announced she was going to make some pasta, assuming I would be staying for lunch.
I surprise myself now for declining. I wasn’t feeling hungry after the wine-tasting snacks, not to mention that I’d been stuffed with a delicious multi-course meal the day before by another Campania home cook. I had to continue on my way, I said.
In Southern Italy, if you accept every mealtime offer, I figure, you never go far. But I suppose that is the point.