If a man can resemble a piece of heavy farm equipment, that guy is Salvatore Molettieri.
A solidly built contadino with his feet firmly planted on the earth, Molettieri, 69, began cultivating Aglianico in the 1970s, as his family had done for more than a century here in Montemarano, at the center of the mountainous Irpinia district in southern Italy’s Campania region.
Molettieri made the leap from grower to wine producer for a practical reason: The bottom fell out of the market for Aglianico grapes after the 1979 earthquake, and his farming efforts could no longer cover costs.
Forty years on, that decision has paid off many times over. Molettieri has become a leader in the Taurasi appellation, where he’s known for making wines combining depth, power and finesse. The latest release of his flagship Taurasi Vigna Cinque Querce 2012 (95 points, $52), is an example of just how good Aglianico gets.
Molettieri works out of an unglamorously utilitarian winery at the top of his sloping vineyards, which hover above the Calore River valley at elevations up to 2,000 feet. From the outside, the winery looks like it could be a machine shop on a rural two-lane road. His four sons, near–carbon copies of their dad, have followed him into viticulture. Giovanni, the oldest at 46—“He began working here when he was 9,” Molettieri says proudly—is the family’s enologist and agronomist, sharing winemaking decisions with his dad.
“I did it for them to have work here,” says Molettieri of building the business. “I didn’t do it for me.”
Starting with about 15 acres of family vineyards, in 1983, Molettieri began making wine in the cellar of his father’s house and selling it in bulk to bottlers. At the time, there were no estate grower-producers who bottled wine in Montemarano and there were few in all of Campania.
Molettieri began with modest goals, like competing in the Sagra del Vino harvesttime festival in tiny Montemarano (pop. 3,000). In his first showing, in 1985, he took first place—a feat he repeated for several years running.
The fruit from the 1988 vintage was so exceptional, Molettieri recalls, he decided to age it seven years in big oak barrels before bottling about 600 cases in 1995.
The next spring, he took a few of these bottles to the annual Vinitaly wine fair in Verona, where the wine impressed Italian-American importer Marco de Grazia. De Grazia showed up in Montemarano two weeks later and told Molettieri his wines were worth far more than what he was asking. De Grazia has imported the wines stateside ever since.
In the following years, Molettieri selected and registered three Aglianico clones, chosen from his family’s old vines for their resistance to mildew and botrytis during the grape’s long growing season. Bit by bit, he replanted all the vineyards, converting them from a local version of pergola training to lower-yielding spur-pruned and guyot systems.
“Aglianico is very acidic here. You need to wait for it to be in balance,” Molettieri says in the contoured clay-gravel vineyard of Cinque Querce, planted around the ruins of a medieval lookout tower. “In the 1990s, the enologists in the area told us that the wines were made in the cellar. But I said, ‘No, it’s made in the vineyard.’”
Molettieri used the profits from his wine to invest, acquiring vineyard land from his family and neighbors, buying his brother’s house to expand into his winery and purchasing modern winemaking equipment.
“We started with contadino equipment,” says Molettieri. “With time, the wines became more delicate, less rustic—better.”
Of course, “delicate” is a relative term when talking about dark, tannic Aglianico.
Today, the Molettieris farm more than 30 vineyard acres, producing about 5,000 cases annually—topped by single-vineyard all-Aglianico Taurasi DOCG bottlings aged in a mix of big barrels and barriques. One Taurasi and a riserva come from Cinque Querce (aged four years and five, respectively) and the third (aged three years) comes from nearby Renonno vineyard. Also imported into the United States is their simpler Irpinia DOC Aglianico Cinque Querce with two years of wood aging.
Salvatore and Giovanni seem to have few differences over the winemaking. The estate is near organic, except for the occasional use of systemic treatments against mildews. Their philosophy, like most southern Italian farmers, is borne from rural experience: Good grapes make good wine. And with three strapping brothers to help, Giovanni makes sure the family brings in good grapes at harvest.
“Aglianico needs time,” says Giovanni. “Time in the vineyards, time in the winery, time in the cellar.”
Both men also agree that Taurasi wines match best with saucy meat dishes. Like, for example, the local Maccaronara di Montemarano prepared by Molettieri’s wife, Angela, with fresh pasta tossed in a ragù based on tomatoes, pork cheek and lamb.
As we did not have the benefit of such home cooking to enjoy alongside (the family matriarch was recovering from a leg fracture at the time), what really surprised me was just how pleasurable, vibrant and thirst-inducing were the Molettieri Irpinia DOC Aglianicos from Cinque Querce—at less than half the price of the longer-aged Taurasi bottling from the same vineyard.
“It’s all Aglianico from here,” Molettieri says with a down-to-earth shrug. “In a good year, it’s all good.”
Read Parts 1, 2 and 3 of Robert Camuto's Tour of Campania: