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Discover Taurasi, the Flagship Wine of Southern Italy

Structured, complex and boasting serious aging potential, Taurasi is southern Italy’s answer to Piedmont’s Barolo and Tuscany’s Brunello di Montalcino. Vertical tastings of older Taurasi vintages dating as far back as the 1930s have shown this noble southerner has marathon staying power that may even exceed Italy’s more famous red bottlings. The latest releases, meanwhile, display class and pedigree.

From the Campania region, Taurasi is made with native grape Aglianico, one of the country’s greatest varieties, along with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Aglianico is planted across a few regions in the south, but its spiritual home is in Campania’s Avellino province, a hilly inland area known historically as Irpinia.

Centered around the town of Taurasi, Avellino’s conditions help Aglianico excel. The variety yields wines with vibrant acidity and firm tannins, which ultimately result in ageworthy structures.

Sprinkled throughout the denomination are ancient vines that survived phylloxera.

Thanks to this firm structure, Taurasi must be aged at least three years before it hits the market, which includes one year in wood. Taurasi Riserva has a mandatory aging period of four years, with 18 months in wood.

When young, Taurasi boasts black cherry, violet and dark spice sensations that develop into leather, truffle, tobacco and balsamic notes with time in the bottle.

Planting better clones and choosing the best sites have further improved grape quality. Most producers now make Taurasi with 100% Aglianico, even though the production code only calls for a minimum of 85% of the variety.

From left to right; Contrade di Taurasi–Lonardo 2012 Vigne d’Alto (Taurasi), Mastroberardino 2012 Radici Riserva (Taurasi), Guastaferro 2013 Primum (Taurasi) and Antico Castello 2012 Taurasi
From left to right; Contrade di Taurasi–Lonardo 2012 Vigne d’Alto (Taurasi), Mastroberardino 2012 Radici Riserva (Taurasi), Guastaferro 2013 Primum (Taurasi) and Antico Castello 2012 Taurasi / Photo by Julie Benedetto

Getting in the Zone

Taurasi’s denomination comprises 17 communes that cover a range of soils, vineyard altitudes and microclimates, all of which Aglianico transmits clearly into the wines. In general, soils consist primarily of calcareous clay, combined with elements of volcanic origin from historic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, namely the massive Avellino eruption nearly 4,000 years ago.

Veins of volcanic material like tuff, pumice, lapilli and ash are found in varying amounts throughout the denomination. But soils in and around the town of Taurasi, which lends its name to the denomination, have retained the most volcanic matter.

“Taurasi is on a plateau and doesn’t have the erosion of steeper areas, so the volcanic soil has remained intact,” says Alessandro Lonardo, founder of Contrade di Taurasi–Cantine Lonardo, whose vineyards range from 20 years old to more than a century.

Sprinkled throughout the denomination are ancient vines that survived phylloxera, the root-eating aphid that decimated European viticulture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Most of these vines are concentrated in the village of Taurasi itself, where loose soil composed of layers of volcanic ash provided a natural obstacle to the pest. As a result, these centenarian vines aren’t grafted on to American rootstocks, which is the only known remedy against phylloxera.

“Thanks to the volcanic ash, my 200-year-old Aglianico vines never succumbed to phylloxera­, and are still on their original rootstocks,” says Raffaele Guastaferro, who owns his namesake firm.

Besides mineral sensations, volcanic soils impart elegance.

“Aglianico cultivated in clay soils that have no organic matter produces wines with assertive, unmanageable tannins,” says Fortunato Sebastiano, a consulting enologist who has worked with the Guastaferro winery. “But when planted in predominantly volcanic soils, and in clay containing organic substances and volcanic ash, Aglianico’s­ tannins are more refined.”

Sebastiano also consults for Boccella and Villa Raiano, whose Taurasi vineyards are located in the commune of Castelfranci. There, the soil composition is complex and can have subtle differences from vineyard to vineyard. Sebastiano notes that the predominantly calcareous clay soils throughout the township mix with variable amounts of sandstone and volcanic substances beneath the surface.

Contrade di Taurasi–Lonardo 2012 Vigne d’Alto (Taurasi); $80, 95 points. Perfumed and loaded with finesse, this single-vineyard wine opens with enticing scents of violet, ripe black-skinned fruit, new leather and baking spice. Made with 60- to 100-year-old plants, the smooth, delicious palate delivers succulent Marasca cherry, plum, licorice and nutmeg framed in velvety tannins, making it one of the more elegant expressions of Taurasi out there. A mineral note energizes the lingering finish. Drink through 2032. Oliver McCrum Wines. Cellar Selection.

Mastroberardino 2012 Radici Riserva (Taurasi); $80, 95 pointsUnderbrush, charred earth, spiced plum, tobacco and star anise are just some of the aromas you’ll find on this delicious red. It’s enveloping yet structured, delivering dried black cherry, licorice and cocoa set against a backbone of velvety tannins. Hold for even more complexity. Drink 2022–2032. Leonardo LoCascio Selections–The Winebow Group. Cellar Selection.

Guastaferro 2013 Primum (Taurasi); $70, 94 points. Aromas of new leather, aromatic herb, exotic spice, prune and cocoa follow over to the palate along with cherry, prune and star anise. A backbone of assertive, fine-grained tannins and fresh acidity provides an age-worthy structure, while a tobacco note lingers on the close. Drink 2021–2033. Vinifera Imports. Cellar Selection.

Antico Castello 2012 Taurasi; $45, 93 points. This opens with aromas of underbrush, scorched earth, spiced plum and balsamic. The juicy, delicious palate doles out fleshy black cherry, black raspberry, star anise and baking spice alongside polished tannins. It closes on a salty mineral note. It’s structured and already enjoyable but will also offer fine sipping over the next few years. Drink through 2022. Kimera Wine Import. Editors’ Choice.

A Grape with Altitude

Vineyard altitude is another significant factor for slow-ripening Aglianico. In the Taurasi denomination, altitudes generally range between 984 to about 1,970 feet above sea level, though the higher registered Taurasi vineyards reach about 2,067 feet.

Grapes grown in lower areas, in the northwest part of the appellation, generate wines with less acidity and more fruit that are ready to drink sooner. Vines at middling altitudes in the northeast produce more refined, balanced wines that possess distinct spicy sensations.

As with other growing areas around the world, climate change has altered the game.

“Our Piano di Montevergine vineyard in the Taurasi village is still performing well, but in just the last several years, the area has gotten notably hotter, and we strongly feel that the future of Taurasi production in the denomination is in the higher altitudes,” says Antonio Capaldo, president of Feudi di San Gregorio, the largest producer in Irpinia.

“Luckily, there are a number of high hillsides that could be cultivated, and we’re pushing the consorzio to change the current regulations to allow cultivation in these higher slopes.”

In the south of the denomination, the towns of Castelfranci and Montemarano, in addition to sites in Paternopoli, are home to some of the region’s highest vineyards. Castelfranci and Montemarano have always been considered among the best areas for Taurasi production, as the high altitudes and their proximity to the Picentini mountains generate sharp day-night temperature fluctuations.

Taurasi’s top producers seek to make more refined wines that, while ageworthy, won’t need years or decades to come around.

Feudi di San Gregorio sources Taurasi fruit from 95 vineyards within the denomination, 50 of which are estate owned and include sites in Castelfranci and Montemarano.

“Grapes in Castelfranci and Montemarano have a longer growing season by about 20 days when compared to lower areas,” says Pierpaolo Sirch, one of Italy’s most sought agronomists who is also the cellar operations supervisor at Feudi di San Gregorio.

“The slower ripening generates wines with more complexity and fragrance, as well as more acidity and tannins.”

Taurasi wines from these higher altitudes are also the longest lived in the denomination.

“Montemarano has always been known for the quality of its grapes,” says Piero Mastro­berardino, 10th generation owner-manager and president of the Mastroberardino winery, which was founded in 1878 by Piero’s great-grandfather, Angelo. “They’re rich in tannins and acidity, and produce wines with serious longevity. For this reason, we select grapes from our Montemarano estate for our Radici Taurasi Riserva.”

If wine lovers are discovering Taurasi and other great wines from Irpinia, it’s thanks largely to the Mastroberardino family. While other producers began to plant Sangiovese and Trebbiano grapes for quantity-­driven wines in the 1950s, and later focused on international varieties when they were hot, Piero’s late father, Antonio, bucked those trends.

The Mastroberardinos were almost alone as champions of Irpinia’s native grapes and local wines until the 1990s. Over the last decade, the firm has held a few exclusive tastings of its older Taurasi vintages back to the early 1930s. These bottlings have proven the wine’s extraordinary ageability, and further encouraged others to appreciate the region’s unique long-term potential.

Taming Taurasi

One of the biggest challenges in Taurasi is controlling both the acidity and the pronounced tannins.

“Aglianico has a lot of acidity and is very high in polyphenols, so there’s the risk of making big, excessive wines that are high in alcohol,” says Sebastiano. “Balance and elegance, on the other hand, are more difficult with Aglianico, because if you don’t have equilibrium between acidity, tannins and alcohol, you could get bitter sensations.”

These days, Taurasi’s top producers seek to make more refined wines that, while ageworthy, won’t need years or decades to come around. To harvest the grape at ideal maturation is crucial.

Clonal research has also been key. Both Feudi di San Gregorio and Mastroberardino have collaborated with top Italian universities and selected clones that originate from some of the wineries’ oldest, ungrafted vines.

“Aglianico is thin-skinned and extremely fertile, but these old-vine clones have lower fertility, produce looser bunches that help against fungus diseases and encourage ripening,” says Mastroberardino’s agronomist Antonio Dente. “They also have thicker, more resistant grape skins, all of which means healthier grapes and vine balance.”

Mastroberardino’s­ clones, named after Piero’s father, will soon be commercially available.

Change is taking place in the cellars, too. More producers now utilize softer pressing and shorter maceration times to avoid excessive tannin extraction. Winemakers are also minimizing the use of new barriques, which can impart noticeable wood tannins as well as coffee and vanilla sensations.

Instead, many opt for a mix of barrels of different ages and sizes, including the use of neutral Slavonian casks.

From left to right; Feudi di San Gregorio 2013 Piano di Montevergine (Taurasi), Terredora Di Paolo 2011 Pago dei Fusi (Taurasi), Villa Raiano 2013 Taurasi and Case d’Alto 2012 Taurasi
From left to right; Feudi di San Gregorio 2013 Piano di Montevergine (Taurasi), Terredora Di Paolo 2011 Pago dei Fusi (Taurasi), Villa Raiano 2013 Taurasi and Case d’Alto 2012 Taurasi / Photo by Julie Benedetto

I.D., Please

The biggest challenge that faces Taurasi is a lack of identity. Given the variations within the growing zone, stylistic differences and experience among producers, Taurasi bottlings can be wildly varied. Examples range from extracted and muscular, opulent and fruity, bracingly austere and tannic as well as balanced and complex. Such disparity makes it difficult to offer a succinct definition for the denomination.

Some producers believe that a focus on single-vineyard production would help consumers. Others feel this approach would cause more confusion for a wine not well known outside a tight circle of die-hard Italian-wine lovers and collectors.

For the moment, the name and reliability of the producer is the best guide to find the finest Taurasi.

Feudi di San Gregorio 2013 Piano di Montevergine (Taurasi); $85, 93 points. Menthol, tobacco, blackberry and dark, exotic spice aromas slowly take shape. On the firmly structured palate, tense, fine-grained tannins support black cherry, licorice and clove. It’s still young and tight, so give it plenty of time to fully develop. Drink 2023–2033. Terlato Wines International. Cellar Selection.

Terredora Di Paolo 2011 Pago dei Fusi (Taurasi); $60, 92 points. Pipe tobacco, star anise, baking spice, blue flower, menthol and blackberry aromas are front and center in this fragrant red. On the taut, medium-bodied palate, fine-grained tannins give structure to crushed raspberry, juicy Marasca cherry, licorice and a hint of incense. Drink 2021–2031. Vias Imports. Cellar Selection.

Villa Raiano 2013 Taurasi; $40, 92 points. Aromas of black-skinned fruit, violet, dark cooking spice, crushed herb and a whiff of underbrush make for an enticing bouquet. On the firm, elegantly structured palate, taut, fined-grained tannins and fresh acidity balance dried black cherry, raspberry jam, black pepper and a hint of bitter cocoa. Drink 2021 through 2028. Siena Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Case d’Alto 2012 Taurasi; $55, 90 points. Truffle, underbrush, leather, prune and exotic spice aromas lead the nose. The palate has a firm structure, offering dried Marasca cherry, bitter cocoa and star anise, as well as hints of oak. Drying, fine-grained tannins provide support. Giannoni Selections.