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8 September 2016updated 30 Jun 2021 11:56am

Sipping the wines that grew from molten lava

The vineyards of Campania roll across the landscape around Vesuvius, allowing for a beautiful resurrection.

By Nina Caplan

The closest I have ever come to premodern travel, give or take a couple of donkey rides in my childhood, is driving in Naples, in the region the Romans named Campania Felix, or Happy Country. The hire car was reasonably new and functional but the roads were neither, and the other drivers behaved like the barbarian horde. People like to talk of corruption, and certainly little money is spent here on either road repair or traffic supervision, but I suspect that an ability to thrive in the shadow of one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes requires a certain brinkmanship, to say nothing of a disrespect for the puny claims of human authority. Yet the Happy Country is not misnamed. There are surprising successes among the human and topographical failures –some of them drinkable.

Most people are aware that Vesuvius’s eruption in 79AD both destroyed and preserved the city of Pompeii, but it also ruined some wonderful vineyards: the Roman empire’s finest, praised by Horace, Catullus and Virgil. However, every ash-cloud has a silver lining, and such is the miracle of agriculture that, once molten lava has cooled for a couple of hundred years, volcanic soils provide excellent nourishment for vine roots. So destruction becomes transmuted into a rather nicer liquid, just as the Pompeiians’ nightmare has become a great gift to modern historians.

This wondrous process of resurrection is discernible in the wines of Campania but not in their reputation. Although mountainous Irpinia, inland from Naples, has good looks, great food and three of Italy’s finest DOCGs (the designation for the highest-quality Italian wines), it is remarkably untrammelled by tourists. Those wines – the delicious, muscular mountain whites Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, and rich, red Taurasi made from Aglianico, a grape that probably arrived with the ancient Greeks – flow through foreign markets rather as a car does through Naples: bumpily, and with no guarantee of a continuing trajectory.

Gaetano Petrillo is an excellent driver, which is fortunate, because his small business, the Wine Bus, offers the sort of access to Campania’s wineries and restaurants which no authority seems bothered to provide. When he was working for a local wine company, a wealthy American rang, wanting a transfer from Positano to see the vineyard and buy wines. “I couldn’t take her,” he says, “and I didn’t sleep because I was very sad.”

So he quit and started the Wine Bus, and now, he says, “I come pick up you in Naples and take you to see my country.” With Gaetano, visiting the tiniest, most obscure or inaccessible Campanian wineries is easy. All well and good to stop at the huge, architect-designed Feudi di San Gregorio, with its great Michelin-starred restaurant, but you can also rock up at Bambinuto, where Marilena and her policeman husband set out snacks in their tiny tasting room to sop up her lovely Grecos, Fianos and another local white grape, Falanghina (“Marilena, she love Falanghina too much”), as well as excellent home-made grappa and brandy.

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So much for whites; but Taurasi, as Claudio of Il Cancelliere vineyard tells me, “is not even red: it’s black”. Up a picturesque mountain called Montemarano (“the hill the Romans couldn’t conquer”), he, his wife and his in-laws live a life those Romans would have recognised: home-grown food, lovingly tended vines, open-handed hospitality and superb wines, from an earthy, raspberry Aglianico to the 2010 Nero Né Taurasi, named for the colour, but also for an emperor more malevolent than any volcano. Here, the depradations of Earth’s molten core have had an extremely happy outcome. All it took was patience and care – and once off their highways, Campania’s residents have both.

This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war