There are wines that you want to keep all to yourself and only tip off a few friends to the secret, and others you want to shout about for all to hear. Cantine Antonio Caggiano falls firmly into that second camp. The highest echelon of wineries in Campania is a very short list: Mastroberardino is the first name that a wine drinker might think of, quickly followed by peers like Feudi di San Gregorio, Benito Ferrara, Terredora Di Paolo, and Caggiano. Together, these form a pinnacle of winemaking that stands over all of southern Italy.
Heading inland from Naples and neighboring Mount Vesuvius, the rugged hills of Avellino Province hold the most highly regarded appellations of the region. Characterized by their high elevations and by various forms of volcanic soils, this landscape is perfectly suited for the native Aglianico grape, a grape of such exceptional character that it has earned the name “the Barolo of the South.” From north to south, Piedmont’s Nebbiolo, Tuscany’s Sangiovese, and Campania’s (Basilicata’s, too) Aglianico are the three finest grapes of the Italian peninsula. If their placement had been transposed, we might be drinking much more Aglianico, and probably paying much more for it.
Why aren’t we? The southern Italian regions, collectively named the Mezzogiorno from the heat of the midday sun, have been in a position of economic distress since well before the unification of Italy in 1871. This query has its own designated term - la questione meriodionale, body of literature - letteratura meridionalista, and field of study - meridionalismo, all dating from the 19th century. There is a fascinating, complicated spiral of history, economics, geography, sociology to uncover, though the more you dig...the more lost you might become. If you want to head down that path, Emanuele Felice’s contemporary research is a great place to start. For the purposes of this article, just know that talking about these wines, buying these wines, and drinking these wines is a helpful place to begin.
Is Campania the home of truly legendary wines? Absolutely, even Pliny the Elder mentioned a few by name…in the first century A.D. Is Aglianico Italy’s finest grape? Quite possibly. Though it shows some stark differences from Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, they all share structural features like high tannin and acidity that help give the wines excellent ageability, indeed, these are some of the most cellar-worthy wines anywhere. Recent refinements in Campania appellations give some clarity toward a quality hierarchy, beginning with Irpinia DOC. This is the largest denomination for Aglianico, and these wines are typically meant to be drinkable (deliciously so) upon release, like Caggiano’s fine example, Tauri. The next rung is occupied by Campi Taurasino DOC, again well-represented by Caggiano with their Salae Domini. Limited to the vineyards surrounding a handful of villages within Irpinia, this is a high quality region offering wines of abundant fruit, smoky minerality, and a more approachable character.
Taurasi itself, elevated to DOCG status in 1993, is the home to wines that might be a little austere and impenetrable in their youth, but from about 5 years on begin a slow evolution toward the profound. The elevation is now even higher than the surroundings, 350m and above, and barrel aging is mandated to soften Aglianico’s rough tannins. The 2016 Vigna Macchia dei Goti, Caggiano’s Taurasi, spends 12-18 months in oak, then another year in bottle before coming to market. It is drinking now with a dense core of fig and plum, highlights of pine resin and dried tobacco, and a backbone of acidity that will give the bottle life for decades to come. It’s enjoyable now, but it will be otherworldly in a couple of years if you can manage to misplace a couple of bottles in a cool, dark location.
This is not just a red wine house. Caggiano also makes a Greco di Tufo, Fiano, Falanghina, and a blended white. Greco is a fascinating grape, showing a high level of tannin for a white, which often reads as bitterness in less skilled hands. Here, in the house’s Devon bottling it is fresh and bright, all citrus and salinity. The Fiano release under the name of Bechar effortlessly weaves together melon and orchard fruits with savory herbs and floral notes. Both of these grapes are often subjected to a misguidedly overwrought treatment. Caggiano vinifies them with a light hand, in all stainless steel, letting the grapes shine without a facade of new oak. The whole range of wines at Cantine Antonio Caggiano shows precision and focus. The founder, a photographer and sculptor, often speaks of beauty as an aim for his winemaking. Somewhere in their making, these wines transcend craftsmanship and achieve exactly that.