Nestled in the sandy clay soils between the Taburno and Matese mountain ranges in Italy’s Campania region, at about 200 meters above sea level, sit a relatively small number thirty year old lost souls.
Well, almost lost souls, anyway.
Specifically, the “esoteric” grape varieties Pallagrello Bianco, Pallagrello Nero and Casavecchia, rescued in part as a passion project of husband and wife team Peppe and Manuela Mancini, the former lawyer and journalist, respectively, that founded Terre del Principe. (which I visited this year as part of a media tour around the Campania Stories event).
That their vineyard is a land of the almost lost (no Sleestaks, of course) is one of the more charming things about a charming couple who are making mostly charming wines.
Peppe Mancini, in remembering the Pallagrello wines form his youth, sought out the vines and ended up finding them in this vineyard, which turned out to belong to one of his family members. Until recently, Pallagrello Bianco wasn’t even in the National Register of winemaking grapes. Seemingly, it had fallen out of favor when the Bourbons fell during the unification of Italy (King Ferdinand IV had taken a liking to it), and had never recovered.
Similarly, Casavecchia (taking its name from an “old house” where the vine was found growing in Pontelatone) had been relegated to small-time, rustic production until Mancini helped to spearhead its rediscovery in the 1980s.
Along with cellarmaster Luigi Moio, Peppe makes the wines of Terre del Principe (while Manuela, as she modestly states, “just drinks it.”) in Castel Campagnano tufo cellar that dates back to the 10th century (the well in the 15th Century entrance is now used for lowering French oak barrels into the cellar space), and was likely part of the Longobardo castle’s external warehouses.
Everything about Terre del Principe seems similarly, charmingly small, and modestly adjusted only where absolutely necessary. The vineyards pergola training (a hold-over from the past, to protect the grapes from wild boar) is still in use, though modified slightly to reduce vigor. Production has recently been culled back to 20,000 bottles per year (“It’s higher quality,” notes Manuela, “and less work!”). And the wines, in turn, seem all the better for it…
2015 Terre del Principe “Le Sèrole” Pallagrello Bianco (Campania, $36)
Pallagrello Bianco grows in small, tight, almost translucent bunches, so the windy climes of the Mancini’s vineyards are a good match for keeping the grape bunches healthy. The Le Sèrole is, for the most part, intriguing stuff. Perfumed, with heady floral, nutty, honey, and wax aromas, there’s a broad palate entry, nice freshness, with spice, melons, hay, and a pleasant astringent bite. One gets the sense that this wine could be long-lived; to that point, I also tasted the 2010, which was even more honeyed, nutty, and perfumed, and still felt young. Think Chenin Blanc meets Pinot Blanc, with a touch of the exotic mixed in for good measure.
2013 Terre del Principe “Ambruco” Pallagrello Nero (Campania, $39)
Pallagrello Nero is late-ripening, forming small, tight bunches of black grapes. Terre del Principe is, by most accounts, one of the largest producers of this variety in the area, at a whopping 3,000 bottles per year. One almost immediately wants pizza and or cheese when smelling this wine. There are violets, spice, earthy funk, and dark plummy fruits on the nose. While the tannins are ample, they’re soft, giving the wine a lithe, juicy mouthfeel. The overall package has a nice sense of balance between elegance and rustic authenticity.
2013 Terre del Principe “Centomoggia” Casavecchia (Campania, $39)
Casavecchia grows in large, loose bunches, and the color of its wines is usually a fairly dark ruby. The Centomoggia is a meaty, riper style, augmented by funk, cloves, and tobacco notes. Soft in the mouth at first, a good deal of grip comes later; so much so that time will be needed to tame the gritty, chalky tannins.
2013 Terre del Principe “Piancastelli” (Campania, $37)
Made from single vineyard fruit in Terre del Volturno, this is a mix of 75% Pallagrello Nero, and 25% Casavecchia, in honor of the field blends of the two grapes that were how these varieties were traditionally made into wine. Soft, spicy, juicy, and authentic, the violet aromas mix with the red and black fruits, followed up by pipe tobacco. It’s structured, spicy, delicious, and – best of all – pretty f*cking unique.