The Volcanic Wines of Campi Flegrei: Falanghina and Piedirosso

Volcanic wines have been hovering on top of everyone’s list lately and for so much good reason. These wines are born with great personalities, imprinted with deep expressions of minerality, marked salinity and bright acidity influenced by the composition of the soil where they are planted. Campi Flegrei is one of the territories in Italy that’s well-known for its volcanic wines, specifically the Falanghina, the white variety, and Piedirosso, the red variety. These are excellent wines to drink and when they are aged, they evolve deeper with beautiful complexity, but they are not as diffused outside the region as we would want them to be. Perhaps that’s already a good reason to give Campi Flegrei a visit.

Referred to as a supervolcano, Campi Flegrei or Phlegraean Fields in English (also known as burning fields), is comprised of 24 craters and edifices, many of which are underwater in Pozzouli Bay, and stretched out in over 65 square kilometers. Lying mostly underground, this giant is much more powerful than its iconic neighbor, Mount Vesuvius, which is actually just 35 kilometers away, sandwiching Naples in the middle. Rocks, pozzolans and lapilli born from fire are scattered about, as well as fumaroles, thermal springs. In other words, the locals actually live on the volcano itself.

Understanding its Origins

To understand the actual landscape of Campi Flegrei, we need to go back 50,000 years ago at the First Phlegraean Period when it was brought to light after a series of violent eruptions and earthquakes. The ejecta of volcanic by-products are the ones that are visible at the base of Monte di Cuma and Monte di Procida (the rocky reefs of St. Martin and Monte Grillo). The Second Phlegraean Period happened 35,000 to 40,000 years ago when a violent eruption disseminated the Campania region with rocks such as: piperno, or gray tuff; ignimbrite; and the breccia museo, which are small rocks of various mineralogical nature. As a result of this extremely abundant ejecta of volcanic materials, the magma chamber emptied then collapsed, destroying the volcanic systems and the Gulf of Puzzuoli was created. The Third Phlegraean Period was between 15,000 to 18,000 years ago which led to the formation of the Torregaveta Volcano. This was followed by the massive formation of the yellow tuff deposits and white tuffaceous rocks. The Fourth Phlegraean Period covered the last 10,000 years of volcanic activity and produced inconsistent materials such as pumice, pozzolan, lapilli and tuff debris. This period also saw the formation of volcanoes and craters in the area. The most recent of which is the Monte Nuovo, a cinder cone volcano that formed and grew to a height of 133 meters within the caldera in Lake Lucrino after a series of earthquakes and changes in land elevation in just a matter of seven days in 1538.

Campi Flegrei DOC

The denomination Campi Flegrei DOC was authorized in 1994 in 7 communes of the territory, all of which have volcanic soil composed of a complex patchwork of stratification of pyroclasts namely gray and yellow tuff, lapilli and pumice. The vineyards have a general altitude of 150 to 200 meters above sea level, with a significant amount of ungrafted centennial vines which have resisted the attack of the phylloxera. This is due to the volcanic and sandy composition of the soil and the proximity to the sea. For both Campi Flegrei Falanghina and Campi Flegrei Piedirosso (also known as Per’ e Palummo), the minimum composition is 90% of the respective grapes. Around 175,000 hectares are cultivated with the vines by 23 producers designated for the denomination and with about 800,000 bottles of production a year.

Both Falanghina and Piedirosso are tough varieties, thriving well in the hot climate of Campi Flegrei and because of the presence of pumice in the volcanic soil which has the ability to retain moisture below the surface, the roots are aided in surviving the dry hot summers. In addition to that, it is believed that with the original rootstocks of the vines, they are able to produce wines with intensity of the characteristics that best define the variety and the soil.

Falanghina has a wonderful bright acidity, underlined fruit aromas from white peaches, apples and citrus mixed with white flowers like chamomile, at times flint and crushed stones, and some with marked salinity. They develop an interesting complexity of evolution and weight as they age, but always with elegance. Piedirosso, a native red grape of Campania, which means red feet in English, reflects the color of the bottom part of the vine which is red, similar to the red feet of the pigeons. When the producer goes for a vinification style of refinement only in steel that highlights the varietal characteristics of the grape and less on weight, the pale red wine boasts easy drinkability with a medium structure, more fruit-forward from red berries to red plums, spices, moderate tannins, salinity, and welcoming acidity, and when it ages, it does so gracefully with more pronounced complexity.

Contrada Salandra

Founded by Giuseppe Fortunato in 2004, Contrada Salandra is located in Pozzouli on the coast of Cuma. It has 4 hectares of land dedicated to the cultivation of ungrafted vines of Falanghina and Piedirosso which produce around 20,000 bottles annually, 12,000 of which are white. His wines are vinified in stainless steel only, overseen by oenologist Carmine Valentino. Apart from viticulture, he also dedicates his time to apiculture which he keeps among the rows of vines. Keeping them in the vineyards is highly beneficial for the health of his vines for they function as the primary pollinators of the vines and cover crops.

Mario Portolano

The winery, founded in 2013 by siblings Mara and Stefano Portolano, has 6 hectares of land in Toiano, overlooking the Gulf of Pozzuoli and the island of Capri from afar. The vineyards with ungrafted vines are divided among Falanghina with 2 hectares and 4 hectares of Piedirosso and a bit of Aglianico, with an annual production of 20,000 bottles. They have 3 reds: Piedirosso Campi Flegrei DOC; Donna Teresa, a blend of Piedirosso and Aglianico aged in 2nd passage barrique for 18 months; and Sei Pollici, pure Aglianico aged in oak barrels only on good vintages. Falanghina is produced in two versions: still and their new label, the sparkling wine, obtained from Metodo Classico, 12 months on the lees with no added sugar. The oenologist is Gianluca Tommaseli.

Salvatore Martusciello

Salvatore Martusciello founded this winery in 2015 along with his wife Gilda Guida and with them in the cellar isoenologist Francesco Martusciello, Jr. Like the first two, they also have 6 hectares of vineyards dedicated to Falanghina and Piedirosso, as well as smaller portions of other varieties like: the century-old vines of Asprinio in Caserta for the production of their sparkling wine obtained from Charmat method which has been in production with Salvatore's family since the mid-80s; Aglianico and Sciascinoso for the Gragnano Ottouve, a symbolic frizzy red wine of Naples that's absolutely refreshing.