Imagine walking into any old wine shop. You see shelves stacked with wines from around the world and organized according to their country of origin. You see signs on shelves marked Australia, France, and Argentina. You know the setup. Now let’s say you head off to the Italian wine section of the store. And now, with your eyes closed, grab at a random bottle. Yes, blindly grabbing at a random bottle on the shelf without shattering a few innocent wine bottles in the process. After this feat, with your random bottle in hand, I would bet heavily on the incredibly good odds on that bottle coming from either the regions of either Piedmonte, Toscana or the Veneto.
Why you ask? Well to start off with, just in terms of recognition and production north and central Italian wines tower over those from the south. I’ll give you an example. DOCG wines are wines with that that little fancy seal you sometimes see wrapped around the top of Italian wine bottles. That seal tells you three essential things. First, the amount of wine contained within the bottle (overwhelming the standard amount: three quarters of a liter) Second, the type of wine within the bottle like Chainti or Brunello. And finally an ID number that is unique to each and every single bottle of DOCG wine. Basically that seal shows you that the wine you are holding comes with the strictest regulations possible in making Italian vino. Not only does the wine come from a specific regional area with a certain proportion of native grapes used but also there were some Italian officials along the way that tasted that batch of wine from that vintage and guaranteed its authenticity. Now, although having a DOCG label does not guarantee the quality of wine it does reflect whether a wine region has ‘made it’ so to say.
Lets get back to that bet in the wine shop. There are at the present moment 73 DOCG wine regions in the whole of Italy. From these 73 DOCG wine regions, 60 are from northern and central Italy compared to only 11 from southern Italy. Let me repeat that in terms of percentages, of the 73 DOCG wines regions, about 85 percent of them reside in northern and central Italy. North and central Italian wines on the DOCG list include famous varieties such as Brunello di Montalcino, Barbaresco, Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo and Amarone della Valpolicella. A wine such Chianti now has a certified DOCG footprint that covers nearly half of the region of Toscana giving the wine a wide range of quality.
With southern Italy only having 11 DOCG wines the vast difference in recognition between northern and southern wines illustrates a larger divide between the regions when it comes to general economics. Yet, despite this dominance, southern Italian wines do have something they can hold over their northern brethren. It has to do in the lands within the shadow of Mount Vesuvius and that is where our story begins.
Over two and half million visitors walk amongst the vestiges of Pompeii each year. For many of them, the impression they are left with is a ruined city, frozen in time. An area full of life and vitality would be some of the last thoughts that would come to mind. But if one of these visitors took walk along the main drag of Pompeii to the far northern reaches of this world famous archeological site they would happen upon something that would shatter that image of an area in ruin. There is a small hill just beyond the northern gate of Pompeii. The sight from this point? To your right, that aforementioned ancient city. Yet, straight ahead and to your left? Acres upon acres of pristine vineyards. Life itself, growing out of the volcanic soil that once swallowed Pompeii.
Now, any geologist will tell you that volcanic soil is probably the best foundation for growing pretty much anything. The nutrients contained within volcanic soil are far better than your average run of the mill backyard soil. The people that have lived within the shadow of Vesuvius have had a long bittersweet relationship with their volcano. The mountain would provide a bountiful foundation for farmers to draw from. Yet its unpredictable eruptions would cause a constant tension for those that lived around the Bay of Napoli.
But what is the legacy of that modern vineyard north of ancient Pompeii? Well, the beginnings of major wine cultivation in Italy began all the way back in the 8th and 7th century B.C. In this time, the ancient Greeks not the ancient Romans were in control of large swaths of the Mediterranean. In search of new ports and commercial ties they began to settle much of coastal southern Italy. This area would come to be known as Magna Grecia or Greater Greece. You can still see some of this legacy in the impressive Greek temples standing till this day in southern Italy. Now, as the Greeks colonized much of coastal southern Italy they worked their way up to an area that would become known as the bay around Napoli then coined Neapolis by those same Greeks.
For their part, the Greeks, in addition to people and goods brought grape vines from their homeland to plant in the hillsides surrounding the bay. These vines were harvested first by those Greeks, then a regional people called the Samnites, then those famous Romans. The vines and wine they produced grew into the pride of the Roman Italy. So much so that in 79 B.C Pliny the Elder in his career defining encyclopedia titled Natural History would describe in detail the cultivation of these vines including those grapes that would be known to us today as Aglianico, Piedirosso, and Sciascinoso. These three grape varieties would grow in notoriety throughout the Roman period. Natural History would be Pliny the Elder’s final work, as he would die mere months after its publication. Ironically, in connection with our story, he would perish during that famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 B.C, which destroyed the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, recorded his last hours as the older Pliny turned back his ship towards Herculaneum to save friends on shore.
After the Fall
The eruption of Vesuvius not only decimated the urban centers around the volcano but the countryside as well. Hundreds of acres of planted vineyards were destroyed and would have to wait centuries for replanting. With the fall of the empire in 476 A.D, this task was left to Christian monks and the monasteries they established at the base of Vesuvius. Soon they were cultivating the old Greek vines and making blends out of the grapes as the Romans once did.
Yet, the wine that the monks and the farmers around the Bay of Napoli produced in the centuries to come would be slightly different in its composition to the wine enjoyed by the Romans even if it had the same grapes at its source. The wine of the Romans can be understood as more of ‘wine concentrate’ with a much higher alcohol level than we are used to today. For example, our old friend Pliny noted that a cup of Roman wine could catch on fire if held too close to a candle. For this to happen the wine in Roman times would have to be at least the proof of a standard whisky (if not higher). To balance out the roughness of these high alcohol wines, the Romans would flavor them with herbs or spices. To mute that roughness even further, even a high quality cask of wine for the upper classes would be diluted with 1 part freshwater or seawater to 5 parts wine. Kind of like how some folks add a splash of water to their whisky to ‘open up’ the flavor profile. The cheaper wine for the lower classes was even rougher and has been described in recorded accounts as having the taste of ‘mild vinegar’ and therefore the proportion of water used was much higher.
The wine produced by the monks after the Roman period would see a steady increase in the drinkability of the wines made around Vesuvius. It is believed in this era after the fall of Roman Empire that the monks inhabiting the slopes of the volcano branded the mix of Aglianico, Piedirosso and Sciascinoso grapes with the name Lacryma Christi in reflection of their religious devotion and the beauty of their surroundings.
The monk’s origin story of the wine goes like this: Lucifer, an angel of God in the Christian tradition, was cast out heaven along with his other rebel rousers for defying the Almighty. On his way down from paradise Lucifer and his compatriots grabbed at pieces of heaven. As Lucifer fell, chucks of this paradise landed around the Bay of Napoli. Lucifer would of course fall further beneath the Italian soil and into the underworld where he resides to this day, the bastard. Anyway, Jesus witnesses this damaging exit by Lucifer and has a good old cry about it. His tears hit the slopes around the Bay of Napoli. From those magic rain-like tears sprouted the vines of Lacryma Christi, which in English translates to (drumroll please) the Tears of Christ.
The story might not be wholly original and maybe based on an original Roman tale in which the Roman God Bacchus (The god of winemaking, merry making and generally good times) cries his eyes out at the sight of the beautiful Bay of Napoli. Either way, the wine which is based on vines brought over by the Greeks, developed by the Samnites and Romans and then rebranded by monks has a long and storied history as well as one of the best origin stories in Italian winemaking.
The wine would grow steadily in its popularity from those medieval days through the early modern period. We know this based on the increase of written accounts by Europeans across the continent. For instance the first prominent account of the wine not written by an Italian was the English playwright Christopher Marlowe in his work Tamburlaine in 1587. In act one, the Emperor, as the main character of the story, promises his army riches beyond their wildest dream including endless supplies of Lacryma Christi which they will drink from large bowls.
In 1759, the famed French philosopher Voltaire penned his most famous work, Candide. In Chapter 23, his main character arrives in Venice and is treated at an inn to his first taste of Italian cuisine. Pasta is presented to him as well as partridge. The wine to be served? Lacryma Christi of course.
This literary tradition of including this Neapolitan wine to lend authenticity to an Italian journey would continue with Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo in 1845. In Chapter 33 the character Albert slowly sips this wine at a lodging house when he arrives in Rome at the start of the Carnival season.
These examples across the centuries are just a small selection of the copious mentions the wine has in the early modern period. It growth in popularity would eventually rival the most famous Italian wines of its day and it was seen as the refined choice for upper class Europeans. Yet what happened to make this popular wine in the early modern, medieval and ancient eras virtually unknown today outside Italy?
There were three waves of trouble that caused the decimation of the Lacryma Christi crop throughout Campania. First, there were national financial troubles and exodus of southern Italian migrants between 1870 and the First World War. This predictably decimated the southern economy including the production of wine around Mount Vesuvius. Coupled with this was a grape blight that destroyed hundreds of acres of previously pristine vineyards in the south. Finally, the Italian campaign during the Second World War with its continuous bombing along the terrain of Campania decimated the last vestiges of vineyards in the area. With these troubles and the rise of central and northern Italian wine to prominence worldwide, southern vineyards including those around the Bay of Napoli would be forced in the backseat during most of the post war period.
This standing of southern Italian wine would start to improve in the 1980’s when vintners such as Antonio Mastroberardino made the decision to replant the fields around Vesuvius in the way it had been for centuries. The main choice for these farmers was whether to plant the sure thing in the widely known varietals of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or strike out on a different path by replanting the ancient vines of Aglianico, Piedirosso, and Sciascinoso. The choice made by many of the vintners around the Bay of Napoli was to kick start a wine culture that had largely remained dormant for the past 100 years.
The first step was to identify the forgotten ancient grape varieties and produce them for the modern world. With help from Italy’s National Research Center, archaeological and botanical studies followed in the areas surrounding the city of Pompeii. The first step was to identify the placement of vineyards and the growing techniques of those Romans. This was done through the analysis of imprints left in the hardened ancient lava. When Vesuvius erupted in 79 B.C the lava from that volcano cooled and settled at a depth of about 20 feet. As it hardened it not only created casts of victims and shops but also the grape vines grown around the ancient city.
What was left behind in the 1980’s and 1990’s for the scientist were four-inch circles, that marked the exact position of each vine in the underlying earth. The studies reveled that the vines of the Romans were held in close rows and held by chestnut wood stakes. Digging beneath the hardened volcanic soil, the researchers came upon the remains of 15 ancient grape seeds. The DNA of these 15 seeds were analyzed and compared against the depleted vineyards of the once mighty Campania wineries. The results were astounding with a near identical DNA structure that existed between the ancient and modern grapes.
With these results in hand, wineries around the Province of Napoli began a new and exciting venture. In the words of Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii, “This experiment is part of our effort to re-create the ancient environment.” Many vintners began reproducing the ancient varietals of Aglianico, Piedirosso, and Sciascinoso and in 1999 the first modern vintage of Lacryma Christi was harvested. Frescos on the walls of Pompeii as well as the aforementioned archeological evidence in the soil around the Roman seaport helped many wineries in creating a product that was made in a close a fashion to the ancient ways as possible. Even stalks of chestnut can be seen in the hillsides around Vesuvius as a callback to these centuries old traditions.
What shall we take away from this story? Well, to begin with, there is more to Italian winemaking than Chianti and Barolo. Images of the Italian wine scene put forth by tourist brochures are easy to digest but are static nonetheless. The vines that grow from the Po river valley to Salento are not inert but are part of an evolving tale that stretching back centuries and continues every passing season. The wine of the southern Italy, which only decades ago were seen as substandard to those in the north, are beginning to roar back to life. So the next time you are in that local wine shop by the Italian section, venture outside the old brand names of Chianti and Barolo. Grab at a Lacryma Christi from Campania, a Salice Salentino from Puglia or a Nero d’Avola from Sicilia. Be part of the southern Italy’s wine renaissance.