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23 February 2022

In Italy I find both ancient rulers and young winemakers

In a place where time blurs, even the wine intertwines past and future.

By Nina Caplan

It wasn’t precisely a coincidence that I ended up drinking the last two wines from my 2016 book research trip in the same week: both were 2010s, and I was worried I’d kept them too long. Also, I had been reminiscing about that wonderful journey, searching for traces of ancient Rome in her long-dead inhabitants’ favourite wine region around Vesuvius, and I wanted to return not just there, but then.

Italy is already a place where time blurs; there is so much past crowding the present, which is why it became the focus for The Wandering Vine – my book about wine, memory and history – in the first place. The wines I tasted there were young, and often, so too were the winemakers, but very little else was. The first 2010 was an Aglianico from Il Cancelliere, more than 500 metres up Montemarano, a mountain locals still refer to as “the place the Romans couldn’t conquer”. The vines are worked in harmony with the phases of the moon, which many practitioners of biodynamics would be surprised to know was first suggested by the Roman writer Columella, in the first century AD.

Il Cancelliere’s Nero Né is named for its deep colour (“nero” means black) but also for the scandalous Roman emperor. Recently, the British Museum tried to rehabilitate him: the exhibition was terrific, but I wasn’t convinced that the sadist was actually a decent ruler maligned by vengeful successors. I first tried the wine on that ancient hillside, when it was lovely but too young: a baby named for a 2,000-year-old emperor who was himself dead before his 31st birthday.

Seventeen villages here have the right to label Aglianico as Taurasi, a DOCG (Italy’s top quality designation) that should be better known than it is. The wines have the tannin and acidity required for ageing, and the bottle I’d saved still breathed dark chocolate, black cherry and tobacco, wafting me back six years and more than a thousand miles.

[See also: On a menu of natural wines, I find a wonderland full of surprises]

The other wine, La Sibilla’s Marsiliano, was still pretty, perfumed with smoke and raspberries, but as faded as a photograph left out in the Campanian sun. I drank it recalling a day spent at La Sibilla and at Cumae, an eerie nearby archaeological site that was said, in Roman times, to be the home of the Sibyl. This seemed apt: what could be more of a blend of old and new than a mythical priestess who foretells the future?

The owners of the Sibyl’s namesake winery only started making their own wine in 1997, on a site so old that they claim the ruined villa above the vineyards belonged to Julius Caesar. Up there, we looked down into the turquoise waters of Baiae, where Nero apparently tried to drown his mother. Agrippina managed to swim ashore, and I like to imagine her visiting Cumae, and those two remarkable women sharing survival tips. Perhaps Sibyl comforted Agrippina with the foreknowledge that posterity would punish her vicious son, remembering only his cruelty.

Not all Italian wine’s intertwining of past and future involves myths or murders. Laithwaites has just started selling a wine called W/O (which stands, apparently, for “without compromise”), made from Sicily’s cherryish Frappato grape, in a bottle that is 100 per cent recycled glass: the old, repurposed. Sicily, too, has a Nero: a rich, plummy red grape called Nero d’Avola. Recently I tried Colpasso, a version made from grapes left to dry until the water evaporates, making a richer, more concentrated style. The technique is called appassamiento, and is used in the north for the powerful dry reds known as Amarones. Unlike them, Colpasso is a gently priced wine that will soon be available in Morrisons.

My Campanians, meanwhile, are found in independents: Buon Vino and Hay Wines for Il Cancelliere, while Justerini & Brooks has other cuvées by La Sibilla and I wish they’d stock this one. Although I really shouldn’t complain. I live in an era awash with great wines, my only worry being when to open them. How I would like to consult the Sibyl on that!

[See also: “Food is a dreamspace”: Vittles founder on revolutionising restaurant writing]

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls