Known for its astonishing landscapes and deep blues, fabled islands, and archaeological sites such as Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum, Campania’s true treasure may be the land-locked area called Irpinia, located within the province of Avellino in Italy.
This wine-producing paradise, nestled about an hour’s drive east of Naples, dates back to the Magna Grecia some 3,000 years ago. And it is this ancient association that the president of the chamber of commerce, Constantine Capone in Avellino, is hoping will catapult Irpinia onto the tourism map at the upcoming Expo Milano 2015. During a discussion with those participating on the educational tour I recently tagged along on, he suggested pairing Irpinia with the Amalfi Coast; most of the operators planned to do just that.
Irpinia, an area that is both blessed and cursed by rich volcanic earth so benevolent for vineyards yet prone to earthquakes, one as recently as 1980, is known for its wineries. These wineries trail from the new Cantina Marianna Grottolella, run by a father and daughter since 1996, to the oldest winery in the region, the world-famous Mastroberardino of Atripalda with the Morabianca restaurant at the Radici Resort & Golf. Other vineyard highlights include the Feudi di San Gregorio of Sorbo Serpico with its modern Michelin-starred restaurant, Marenna, nestled among the vineyards; Caggiano of Taurasi; Molettieri of Castelfranci; and the Quintodecimo Moio in Mirabella Eclano, a land of cheese, salami, truffles, chestnuts and, it goes without saying, award-winning wines.
In addition to sampling grand wines along the way, we also had the opportunity to meet with truffle expert Signor Lenzi in the town of Bagnoli Irpino, which is part of the Picentini Mountain Park. Beneath arcs of blue stars strung between 2- and 3-story buildings above the narrow alleys, we learned about black and white truffles, and which make the best foragers—pigs or beagles—to scout out the black gold. All of this was followed by a generous sampling of truffle butters.
Tour participants like Rosario Mariani, principal at Europe by Choice, were inspired on the spot to coin the phrase “Dolce Campania” to market his program to Irpinia in 2015. Lisa Goldman, marketing v.p. of Tour de Forks said, “This untouristed region is a gem and the amazing DOCG wines (Aglianico, Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo and Falanghina) are only half the story, the other is its food.”
While we enjoyed tasting a little bit of heaven, the Bagnolese (bahn-yo-lazee), as the Bagnoli Irpino locals are called, were preparing for the feast of La Madonna della Grazia. During our journey through the region, we kept running into such feast days. In fact, by autumn, the vendemmias or grape harvests dominate the season, as does the Feast of the Chestnuts and Black Truffles at the end of October with a preview of the local cheeses in the Piazza Leonardo Di Capua.
Said Stefania Gargone, a principal of the ground operator, Settimo Cielo Tours, or Seventh Heaven Tours, who organized the program, “There is a feast day just about every day of the year and the summer calendar is packed with colorful religious events…you could literally go from one feast to another tasting totally different dishes at each one.”
No sooner did she say this that we literally bumped into the Sagra de Maialino, the feast of the little pig in Grottolella, where we sampled montanara, a little fried pizza that fits in the palm of your hand and is lightly kissed by tomatoes and a dusting of cheese.
Within the Taurasi area of Avellino, visitors trip over castles and wine cellars, and open doors to some of the most peculiar cellars at Caggiano, Mastroberardino, Feudi di San Gregorio, and Galardi, all producing a great variety of award-winning zesty whites and fruity, intense reds.
“The taste of the region begins in the nose, trickles down the throat and makes its way to your memory,” said master winemaker Salvatore Molettieri, describing how wine should be tasted and evaluated. “It must reach your body’s temperature and then you will know if this wine is for you or maybe for someone else…never keep drinking if it burns your throat even for a moment.”
And in the sprawling vineyards of Mastroberardino, we encountered the real “guardians of the grape,” a reference to the rose bushes planted at the start of each row of grapes as decoys for diseases before they attack the vines, thus affording vintners time to protect the vines.
dining and accommodations
Food and wine lovers need not be gastronomic gurus to enjoy the newly developed programs around Irpinia. All the hosts are welcoming and more like wonderful teachers encouraging students to pair their own passions with the grapes or the cheese, the truffles or the chestnuts. And the settings are spectacular.
The farm-to-table trend is nothing new here. Lunch at Nonna Pina’s in Bagnoli Irpino consists of products that are grown just below the terrace where lunch is served—that would include the salami, the cheeses, the wine, the truffles and the wheat for the pasta, originated within a kilometer from where one dines. Likewise, the aforementioned Marenna restaurant, surrounded by the lush gentle hills of the Feudi vineyard that was founded by the husband-and-wife team of Enzo Ercolino and Mirella Capaldo in the mid-1980s, pairs all its meals with wines right from their vineyards.
Following the 1980 earthquake, Rocca San Felice was rebuilt from the original stones piece by piece. Today, it is home to an outstanding restaurant that features a small museum at La Ripa. Likewise, Antonio Caggiano’s vineyards underwent major restoration following the same cataclysmic event and
was transformed into an unusual cellar that includes an underground museum.
Castelvetere Sul Calore, meanwhile, is a historical village whose community has embraced the concept of “Albergo Diffuso.” Almost impossible to translate literally, it means that locals have taken over historical buildings to create an unusual form of hospitality: 17 modern guestrooms in a warren of old stone buildings, a cafe, a meeting space within a few feet of each other and a campanile, or belltower, right in the heart of town. The experience renders a sense of authenticity.
Morra de Sanctis is a medieval village that has also transformed part of its castle complex into a bed and breakfast that also includes a meeting space and large dining rooms with regional menus. More standard accommodations can be had at the four-star Hotel de La Ville, which features a lovely garden for dining or just relaxing.
Participants with just a smattering of information at the start of this incredible adventure designed by Settimo Cielo’s expert principals with their in-depth knowledge of the region, left with the gift of knowledge about their own tastebuds, the land in which all of this is grown and a peek into a lifestyle that has yet to vanish, fortunately for the rest of us.
Expo Milano 2015 will take place May 1-Oct. 31 in Milan. “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” will be the central theme of this universal exposition, which will host over 130 participants, cover one million square meters, and is expected to welcome over 20 million visitors.
What Travel Agents Are Saying…
“The special feature is that all this great food and incredible wine are available at an affordable cost, with higher quality, compared to other areas,” says Europe by Choice’s Rosario Mariani. Tour de Forks’ Lisa Goldman, adds that, “Our clients are foodies or food and wine enthusiasts who want to explore the world and all its edible wonders. We believe that you can capture the very essence of a destination by delving into its cuisine. We feel [this area] is the perfect add-on or let it be your sole focus; it’s a great place to indulge yourself in its beauty, food and wines.”
Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive):
Culturally Immersive Family Tours (September 2014)