Living away from the city, of necessity, engenders a certain independence of spirit in people and this self-determination is only reinforced by the rigours of their environment. Now, when you think of southern Italy the picture that springs to mind may be of a sun-drenched Pugliese beach with bodies baking gently in the sweltering heat of a midday in August or the rich colours of bougainvillaea draped over the bleached stone walls of the Amalfi coast. But it is not always like that.
We were, as the crow flies, very close to that most metropolitan of cities, Naples, that noisy, chaotic celebration of life as only Neapolitans can live it. However, here we were climbing up the steep sides of a valley coloured only by shades of drab autumnal greens and sombre greys underneath lowering skies that were only too ready to fulfil their threat of rain. Having negotiated the myriad rivers of Avellino that our satnav insisted were roads we then found our way to Azienda Ciro Picariello.
A glance at the photos on their website showing snow-covered vineyards provided further proof, if it were needed, that life as a winemaker in these mountains is no sinecure. The winery is close to the village of Summonte with its mediaeval Angevin tower reminding us of the different nationalities that in the past sat on the throne of the Kingdom of Naples. The tower now features on the labels of the Picariello wines.
Here at 650 metres above sea level, Ciro and Rita Picariello, through sheer hard work – and a lot of talent – have established their business and they are now joined by their children Bruno, with a degree in oenology, and Emma, who handles marketing. The story began in the last century, in the 1990s to be more precise, when Rita inherited two hectares of land which Ciro planted with vines.
From there, they have built a business that produces around 80,000 bottles per year from 16 hectares of vines. The vineyards are at two locations the first, near Summonte, is at 650 metres and features soil that is a mixture of clay and volcanic materials and the other is at Montefredane lower at 500 metres with soil predominantly of clay. Both are cultivated without the use of pesticides, herbicides or insecticides. These different soils and microclimates provide great opportunities for blending as we found out in the tasting room.
When we arrived I was unsure if we had found the right place for their new winery is a spacious, modern building skilfully integrated into the landscape with hints of expansion to come. The reception we received from Emma was just as warm and traditional as an Italian welcome can be.
Sadly, the weather precluded a visit to the vineyards but as we toured the winery Emma told us some of the history of the business. Production of bottled wine began in 2004 – before that, as with so many small vineyards, the wine was for family and locals only. It was consigned fuso or loose which meant you brought your own container and filled it directly in the winery.
Today, they grow several quintessentially southern Italian grape varieties including Aglianico, Falanghina, and Fiano. We were there for the Fiano, which makes up the majority of the production, and is used to produce that famous DOCG Italian white wine Fiano di Avellino.
In the beautiful mezzanine tasting room overlooking the winery vessels where this delight is produced we settled down with Emma, Ciro, and Rita to enjoy the award-winning fruits of their labours. The first we tasted was produced from relatively new vines and the family, conscious of maintaining their reputation, do not bottle this as a DOCG wine but rather as the DOC Irpinia even though it is 100% Fiano. As with all the wines we tasted it is fermented and matured in stainless steel. It has a pleasant pale straw colour with a bouquet of honey, elderflower and pears. On the palate there is a medium acidity and the strong salinity that would make this a literally mouth watering aperitivo or, alternatively, a beautiful accompaniment to seafood.
We next sampled the DOCG Fiano di Avellino, this one from 2021. This is a blend from the two vineyards which Emma assured me really needs another 12 to 24 months to reach full maturity. For the moment it has a strong straw colour with hints of green and a light perfume characterised by lemon with a touch of pear. In the mouth there was less salinity than the previous wine and more acidity with a taste of grapefruit. This is a fine palate-cleansing combination that would pair brilliantly with one of my favourite dishes, seafood in tempura batter.
Finally, were privileged to enjoy the top of the family’s range, again a DOCG Fiano Avellino, called Ciro 906 from 2020. This can best be described as a single cru as it is made only using grapes from the first vines planted by Ciro in the 1990s. Only made during good years, it is matured for 12 months in steel and a further 12 months in bottle. This is a wine that has yet to reach its full potential. The colour, again, is strong straw with plenty of citrus on the nose and in the mouth it is well structured with the delicate flavours of Amalfi lemon and a long finish. Emma recommends pairing it with rabbit, chicken or pork.
Amongst Italians Fiano di Avellino is one of the most prized white wines and tasting the Picariello wines it is easy to understand why. It is worth travelling into the hills behind Naples for the beautiful and varied landscapes and if you have the opportunity to visit Azienda Ciro Picariello you really should.