Because there is so much to see in Italy, from the dazzling Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna to the Renaissance glories of Florence, it can be quite overwhelming. It is also only too easy to miss some of the less obvious but often fascinating aspects of this historic land. Take for example the roads, and here I am not talking about the modern autostrada but rather their Roman progenitors. The enormous network of roads that they created enabled the Romans to communicate quickly enough to manage their vast conquests and one of the most important was the Via Appia. It was originally built around 310 BC as a military supply road from Rome to the site of the Samnite wars in the hills to the east of Naples. Eventually the Emperor Hadrian extended the road to the port of Brindisi and the sea routes to Greece and the Middle East. At first, the route follows the coastal plain but then, just north of Naples, the road turns to the east and heads into the mountains.
It is in these mountains, particularly around the town of Avellino, that the white Fiano grape flourishes. This is a variety that is believed to date back to Roman times but its yields are low and for this reason it was abandoned in the last century in favour of more productive vines such as Trebbiano.
In the 1990s wine production in this region was dominated by large-scale producers who bought in the grapes they needed from a network of small local growers. These large producers were constantly lowering the prices that they would offer the growers and so in 1994 Pasquale Romano, one of those exploited growers, said ‘basta’ or ‘enough’ and invested in his first fermentation vessel and so the Colli di Lapio winery took its first faltering steps.
Pasquale was aided in this enterprise by his daughter, Clelia, who today oversees an enterprise that has 12 hectares of vines – 10 of which are planted with the Fiano grape – with an annual production of around 80,000 bottles of fine wine. We were shown around by her daughter, Carmela, who has joined this family business together with her brother, Federico. The majority of their production is the Fiano di Avellino white wine that was awarded DOC status in 1978 and elevated to DOCG in 2003 and it was for this delightful wine that we visited.
At 620 metres above sea level and dominated by mountains to the east that rise up to 1,300 metres, this landscape has none of the softer feel of the vineyards of Tuscany nor the mathematically precise planting that dominates hills of Piedmont. No – here there is a decidedly wilder feel, and even though we are well to the south of the peninsula there is still snow in the winter although, by contrast, when the wind is blowing from the south west the soft perfume of the sea can be detected. The cool nights are particularly important in helping to preserve acidity, freshness, and aromas of the Fiano grapes.
The rules governing the award of DOCG status permit the use of up to 15% of other approved varieties but Clelia and Carmela seek the purest expression of the Fiano grape and so do not allow any blending. Furthermore, the fermentation and maturing takes place in the hygienic environment of stainless steel that conserves the flavours of the grape. But to produce the complexity and depth that they are looking for, the wine remains maturing on the lees through the long winter months with regular batonnage, or stirring, until February or March and is then bottled in June. The result is a wine with a delicate straw colour and if you swirl it in a glass you will see the legs or tears start to appear, a sure sign of a wine that has a good structure. The bouquet is both delicate and complex with honey and wild flowers and a hint of hazelnuts that will only increase as the wine ages. On the palate it is dry and with an elegant lemon flavour. Carmela says that this has an ageing potential of seven to eight years. This is a wine that will pair well with chicken, pork, or rabbit.
Whilst the main focus of their labours is their Fiano di Avellino, the family also produce two other DOCG wines using indigenous varieties namely a red Taurasi using the Aglianico grape and a white Greco di Tufo. These are all worth seeking out. The winery is small but the welcome from Clelia and Carmela is warm. However, as with most Italian wineries, if you would like to pay a visit it is essential to book in advance.