Last summer, I traveled from the island of Lipari, just north of Sicily, to a hamlet outside Sorrento near Pompeii. By foot, in a taxi, on a boat and with a rental car, we made our way from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the toe of Italy’s boot and up near its lower shin.

By the time we found the farmhouse we slept in that night, it had been dark for a while, and our kids were past exhaustion. But I was exhilarated, having just entered the loveliest place on Earth: The Amalfi coast in Campania. Steeply, tortuously hilly, overseen by Vesuvius, jagged cliffs contemplating the Bay of Naples.

That summer night, Campania felt like home. Its sinuous coast and marine spirit, and the spare rugged stoniness of its interior, reminded me immediately of Maine. (The town of Sorrento in Hancock County is less vividly beautiful than its Italian namesake, but it’s located in similar orientation to the sea.)

Vines have been planted in Campania’s volcanic soils since before the Romans.

And something about these extraordinary wines reminds me of Maine as well: Their vivacity and honesty, as well as, more pragmatically speaking, their affinity for very clean, direct cuisine, especially shellfish and vegetables.

These could be the greatest wines Italy is not famous for. Even the area’s most prestigious wine, Taurasi, remains less loved and lauded than Brunello, Barolo or Barbaresco.

The reds come from Aglianico and Piedirosso. The whites, mostly from Falanghina, Fiano and Greco di Tufo grapes, tend to get lumped into that somewhat dismissive category of “southern Italian whites,” as if they, Verdeca, Cataratto and Inzolia share much of anything besides broad geographical provenance. (Dismissiveness toward the distinct virtues of “the South” seems to be a common attitude of cultures worldwide.)

Lucio Mastroberardino was in Portland recently to promote the unique terroir of his homeland. Mastroberardino is the chief winemaker at Terredora di Paolo, the only Campania winemaker whose wines all are estate-grown and -bottled. (That doesn’t make them “better,” necessarily, but it does make me feel a closer connection to the whole of their being.)

I’ve loved the Terredora wines for years now, and although since my first encounter with them I’ve gone on to taste wines from many different Campania producers (including, of course, when I visited there and found wines not available in the U.S.), they remain my favorites.

There are other interesting wines from there – some of them grander and more oak-buoyed – but none are to me as forthright, direct and somehow essential as Terredora’s.

That most are pretty much the least expensive Campania wines available in Maine (a merry, delicious white blend, the Triade, is an exception) makes them all the easier to appreciate.

Mastroberardino dispelled the notion that Campania fits a southern Italy stereotype of “hot, dry, flat.”

Rather, he said, it is “one of the world’s most polyhedric landscapes” (leave it to the non-native speakers to remind us of our most vivid words!), where one can lose and gain thousands of feet of elevation in relatively tight geographic quarters.

Affected by the Mediterranean and Aegean waters’ mineral qualities as well as the volcanic soil caused by Asian and European tectonic plates crashing together, Campania vineyards flourish because of drama.

Some have attempted to plant Aglianico and Fiano outside Campania, including in California and Australia, but I haven’t heard thrilling reports.

These are just so clearly wines made to be made in this one particular nub of Italy: Those grapes, in that soil, in that climate, by those people with their traditions and knowledge.

Terredora di Paolo wines are distributed in Maine by Pine State. Here’s some further guidance:

Falanghina 2010, $13: The easiest drinking of Campania wines, delicate and driving at the same time. Although slightly spicy, it’s always very gracious: Not intense, just persistent. Grippingly chalky texture, with subtle flavors of cardamom-scented pears and light caramel.

Greco di Tufo 2009/2010, $18: An intensely aromatic, spellbinding step up from the Falanghina, this single-vineyard treasure brims with stone fruits and hints of vanilla while maintaining an oily, steel-wool frankness that will dissolve the firmest Chardonnay dogmatic. The 2010 has more opulent fruit, while the 2009 has more mineral character and would be a fascinating wine to watch age over the next seven years.

Fiano di Avellino 2010, $20: Mastroberardino told me, “We will always be the benchmark for Fiano.” The indigenous jewel of Campania whites, Fiano can age in a cellar for up to 15 years, and many experienced tasters have said that an aged Fiano tasted blind is really like fine white Burgundy (at a fraction of the cost). The 2009 is firmly structured and exceptionally elegant. Less giving than the Greco, it walks a limestone bridge linking floral and fruity.

Aglianico Irpinia 2009, $13: Just a pretty, pretty wine, with a slow, enchanting fade from cherry fruit to dried cherry. Aglianico is quite tannic. Terredora treats this wine with just enough oak to tame the tannins, but the emphasis is on maintaining purity of fruit. Something very different happens with

Taurasi 2006, $28: Yes, again, Aglianico. But it’s fragrant like aged Nebbiolo (Hugh Johnson called Taurasi the “Barolo of the South”), with rose petals, sweetened coffee and thick leather. The tannins are tamed, though dusty and hinting of the potential for aging. This is a lunatic-low price for a wine of this complexity and quality.

If you have neither the money nor time to wait for a properly aged Taurasi, please try the versatile Lacryma Christi 2008 ($18), made from Piedirossa. Decidedly Tuscan character (leather, Oolong, smoke), with simultaneously deeper fruit (plums) than the Aglianico and more ragged rockiness.

I haven’t even mentioned Terredora’s spicy, scintillating Aglianico rosato, the Rosaenovae or the fleshy, Asian-inclining white Coda di Volpe.

For such a small corner of the world, Campania offers so much to explore.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]