Ilaria Petitto, managing director of Donnachiara winery, is from the Campania region of southern Italy, an area in the lower shin of Italy’s boot adjacent to the Amalfi coast.
The Petitto family has been growing indigenous grapes in the town of Montefalcione for many generations, high in the hills above the Atlantic Ocean. Despite its southern Italian locale, Montefalcione benefits from significant mountainous elevations and cooling ocean breezes, which create hot days and cool nights. This increases the grape’s “hang time,” or time spent evolving on the vine, which helps to increase layers and nuance in the wine. I recently had a lovely luncheon with Ilaria at Il Gattopardo restaurant in Manhattan, where she began by telling me a couple of things many know. First, she said, “Campania is a region of Italy not as well-known as other wine regions of Italy.” Next, she added, “Campania is a region of Italy that celebrates its food and wine culture. lnspired and local food is very important to us. We make several pastas, cheeses and fish and other regional dishes that are unique to Campania.” I thought, Well that sounds like just about every region in Italy. Who doesn’t think food and wine when Italy comes up? But here’s the difference in the wines. Campania — and, certainly, the Donnachiara family — grow, nurture and celebrate Campania’s indigenous grapes, not relying on the well-known grapes of the world.
The Campania region grows more than 100 varietals of grapes, many of which are completely unknown outside the area. “Some of the very best white wines of Italy are grown in Campania and are capable of significant aging,” she said. Lesser whites from other regions are made and bought to be consumed that day or that week. Ilaria’s grandfather and great-grandfather planted and grew grapes that they sold off to a local winemaker. But in 2005, Ilaria’s mom, Chiara Petitto, decided it was time to take their product from vine to winery to cellar to table. They hired a winemaker, and then they hired a respected wine oenologist consultant named Riccardo Cotarella, who came in to help create the big picture and direction. Ilaria is a lawyer and when production stepped into gear at Donnachiara, her mom asked her to come home and support the family endeavor.
We started off with a 2016 Beneventano Falanghina IGT Resilienza, made from 100 percent Falanghina grapes. It is a limited production white wine with only 3,000 bottles made. This wine is made in stainless steel tanks and then left for several months in a bottle for self-realization. The Resilienza showed pleasant citrus acidity, a clean and dry fruitiness with good balance. The second white wine was Donnachiara’s 2016 Greco di Tufo DOCG, made from 100 percent Greco grapes. Elegant and smooth, sporting good citrusy flavors held together with a solid backbone of structure, this is a perfect wine for any time of day or to pair with any seafood dish or pasta with a light sauce. The third white we tasted was 2016 Fiano di Avellino DOCG, made from 100 percent Fiano grapes and known for its smoky character and dried fruit flavors. There was a nutty quality to the wine, along with a lemony zest.
As we moved to her red wines, Ilaria told us, “To make beautiful wines, you must have beautiful grapes. Despite the age of the winery, our vines are wonderfully mature and are putting out very expressive fruit.” Red wine number one was the Irpinia Aglianico DOC from 2014, made from 100 percent Aglianico grapes. Aglianico is a difficult grape to grow and can be overly tannic but no, not this one. Showing dark cherry and soft prune flavors with an aromatic spiciness, the wine had a perfect balance between elegance and acidity. Small oak barriques contribute the spice flavors.
Next, we tasted the 2013 Taurasi DOCG, also 100 percent Aglianico. This wine spends one year in the barrel and one year in the bottle prior to release. It shows lovely redolent aromas and flavors of dark fruit, especially plums with a hint of tobacco. Our final wine, the Taurasi Riserva DOCG from 2012, is only crafted when all the growing conditions are perfect for Donnachiara’s top red wine. Again, this wine is 100 percent Aglianico, showing an intensity of lovely flavors. After a year and a half in oak, it rests for two years in the bottle, as its finishing school. Big, dark fruit flavors with spicy aromatics of coffee, dark pepper and new leather jump out of the glass. It has a gripping but pleasant tannic appeal for the full and lasting mouthfeel.
I asked Ilaria what was it that made Campania wines so special. “Most places of Italy are either clay or volcanic soils,” she said. “In Campania, we have a combination of both, which is rather unique to Italy.”
Donnachiara is a smaller family operation, currently making 150,000 bottles a year. It feels like it’s on a path to greatness. The winery is only 12 years old and seems to be doing everything right. Look for some Donnachiara wine or ask for it. (Don’t be afraid of pronouncing the grape names.) Get in on the ground floor. Satisfaction is guaranteed.
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