Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France


Vesuvius and Lacryma Christi

The skyline of the city of Naples is dominated by the outline of Vesuvius. If the nearby Campi Flegrei are mysterious and now subject to urban sprawl, Vesuvius serves as a powerful reminder of the relative insignificance of human beings and their dwellings; it continues to be the brooding backdrop to people’s lives. It is difficult to say whether it or the congestion on the roads of the Bay of Naples is more frightening.  

Viticulture here in recent times has had its ups and downs.  An older generation is retiring and have been giving up the small plots which used to provide wine for their family and friends. Some of those vineyards are reverting to nature. Others are being cultivated by a new, more commercially minded generation of professional winemakers.  The best estimate is that there are currently about 300 hectares registered under vine on the mountain. 15 years ago it was twice that but now a good handful of wineries, Mastroberardino included, are putting the wines of Vesuvius back on the quality and commercial map.  Production today (2017) is divided half and half between perhaps one hundred small growers and commercial wineries some of whom buy fruit. The Consorzio has been reformed and has high hopes of emulating the remarkable vinous success of Italy’s other top volcano, Etna.  While that will be a tall order, it is at least a good aspiration.  

Growers and producers of the wines of Vesuvius work with their indigenous varieties. In red that means Piedirosso (as in the Campi Flegrei; here on Vesuvius about 80% of all black varieties) and Aglianico with a bit of Sciascinoso and other minor blenders. For white this means above all Caprettone (the local name for the variety also grown inland as Coda di Volpe; 70-80% of whites grown), the rest being Falanghina or Catalanesca, a variety used both for wine and the table.  The soils are not very surprisingly a mixture of ash, lava and pumice plus of course topsoil. Altitudes are typically between 50 and 400m (the summit is 1281m), with the sea being a major influence especially on the coastal side of the volcano.  Vines are either trained high, as with Caprettone, to provide shade for the bunches or on trellises for the reds.  If there is humidity there can be downy mildew. In the admittedly exceptionally dry 2017 Cantina del Vesuvio only had to do three treatments all season.  There can be a bit of botrytis on the white grapes but trunk diseases seem not (yet?) to be a problem. 

Not content with the evocative name, Vesuvius, the area is also blessed with the historic wine name Lacryma Christi. Mastroberardino‘s version of the legend runs like this:

Lacryma Christi wine has an ancient name which has been lost over time. The name has always been part of a myth passed down through generations. It is said that the Lord saw in the Gulf of Naples a strip of sky which was torn by Lucifer during his fall to hell and wept. Lacryma Christi vines arose where his divine tears fell.

I do wonder whether the double name, Vesuvius ± Lacryma Christi has confused more people than it has entranced. Be that as it may, the wines have to be based on either Piedirosso (red) or Captretone (white).  It is also possible to call them by their varietal name, in which case the EU rule about a minimum of 85% of the named variety applies.   In any case there appears to be something of a gap between a very permissive set of rules and the current reality. For example, while Vesuvio Rosso only has to be 50% Piedirosso and the white only 35% Capretone, in commercial practice these two are the dominant or indeed only varieties in the bottle. The other differences are small and probably obsolete: Vesuvio Bianco has to be a minimum of 11%, while Lacryma Christi Bianco has to 12%. 

Wines tasted

Cantina del Vesuvio – this is an enterprising estate with an open-door tasting room with spectacular views – the Bay of Naples in front of you, the volcano behind you.  It is perfectly placed between the major archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  As a result, it is much visited by individual and groups of tourists. Indeed the estate sells its entire 11-hectare production at or from the cellar door.  

A full range is produced.  Capafresca Spumante Rosè Extra Dry is made by the tank method from Aglianico grapes, pale salmon in colour, moderately fragrant with something of a boiled sweet note and a certain Aglianico toughness in the mid-palate. Although labelled Extra Dry (up to 17g/l RS) the wine is fully dry.  (With the strangeness of EU labelling regulations in this respect, most of the winery’s customers will think that Extra Dry means just that and so it is a perfectly accurate description.) Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco 2016 12.5% is made from 100% Caprettone and has a fairly neutral nose, dried lemon fruit, medium body and acidity. Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosato 2016 12.5% is a pretty salmon pink colour which comes from direct pressing Piedirosso grapes. Red berry fruit and commendably low alcohol with a touch of grip will make it a very versatile wine by the glass or with food.  Two reds are made. Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso 2015 13% is made from 100% Piedirosso, aged in large oak casks for eight months. Good density of red plum and cherry fruit, well balanced, medium length.  Finally – at least for the wines – there is Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso Riserva 2012, 13.5%, with a rich and full body and firm tannic structure which should enable it to age in the bottle.  Cantina del Vesuvio also makes an apricot spirit and a Grappa. 

I am delighted that the growers and producers of the wines of Vesuvius have finally organised themselves with a view to promoting their historic wines for another generation. I hope we hear a lot more about the wines of Vesuvius in the future – and well beyond the tourist market.  

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