I’ll blame pinot grigio for pretty much anything. And among the things I’ll blame it for is a general misconception about Italian white wines that they’re fresh and insubstantial, breezy and pleasant in the moment—nothing more. There is much evidence to disprove this. Nevertheless, it persists.
This flawed bit of logic seems especially to take hold on the boot’s instep: the southern stretch along the Mediterranean that includes Naples and the Amalfi coast. The reds of Campania have been repositioned in the past 20 years as serious wines, although the alternate narrative of Sicily and Etna stole aglianico’s thunder, but the whites? They’ve tended to be swept into their own convenient—if inaccurate—narrative, one that combines picturesque, sun-drenched port towns, fresh seafood and the sort of unencumbered coastal living that provided the backdrop for The Talented Mr. Ripley.
The most obvious evidence against this is fiano, the great white grape of Campania—one that, like vermentino, is a proper candidate for worldwide fame. If fiano doesn’t rely on aromatic flourishes, like chenin blanc, what it has is a remarkable savory character and a density of both flavor and texture. Well-made fiano can easily lap a lot of chardonnay as substantial, mouth-filling and even luscious. And its innate aromas, of pine nuts and herbs—and often an aspect described, approvingly, as bringing to mind blue cheese—are distinctive and versatile.
The grape is ancient, with roots that plausibly reach back to Roman times. Its modern resurrection came as World War II was ending, when Antonio Mastroberardino, of the Mastroberardino winery, arguably Campania’s most famous, endeavored to produce a small amount. And its popularity grew modestly in the years to follow, enough that fiano had a solid following by the 1980s, with a reputation for making a wine more substantial than other southern Italian efforts like Frascati. This was a noble case of rescuing an ancient grape for modern purposes, in a way too rarely seen among the hundreds of indigenous grapes. Hence why wine authority Ian D’Agata called fiano “an example of what could be lost by not paying proper attention to native varieties.”
And yet when Campania and the south finally had their moment in the early 2000s, fiano seemed to be drowned out by more momentarily fashionable grapes like falanghina, which made ultimately less profound but more immediately vivacious and fun wines—wines that advanced that coastal fiction. I was one of many who hopped onto the falanghina train—and with no regrets, because examples like those from the La Sibilla winery, in the old volcanic remnants of the Phlegraean Fields west of Naples, can be both delicious and can hint at something more profound. But this was Italy’s era of the enologist, and as the wines of Campania became more technical and more popular, fiano seemed to fall into slight shadow.
While Campania’s wine story often intersects with coastal Naples, fiano diverges from that, namely because its real home is farther east, up in the hilly and forested province of Avellino, where it can grow at nearly 2,000 feet elevation, the altitude balancing southern Italy’s abundant sun. The grape’s thick skins both give it some durability and the potential for more concentrated texture to the wine—more stuffing, as it were, which again lifts it above its Campanian siblings, falanghina and greco.
At PUNCH, we’ve been wanting to revisit fiano for a while—not only because we like it a lot, but because it has seemed overdue for another stint in the limelight. The best examples have the combination of purity and density that are exactly right for white wine today, and as we head into colder weather, fiano also serves as a perfect autumn choice: rich without being unctuous. A wine like Ciro Picariello’s Ciro 906, from Avellinese hills that reach past 2,000 feet, can more than tangle with a lot of very studiously-made white Burgundy and other chardonnay. Yet there’s a guilelessness to it—a sense of quality without obvious winemaking at work.
That, actually, is where good practitioners of fiano should be heading. If the old enologist’s mode of steel tanks and commercial yeasts elevated southern white wines from their old, rough-edged and oxidatized ways, it’s now time to move to the current state of the art: indigenous fermentations, that grab bag of texture-enhancing aging vessels (wood casks, geometric concrete tanks and so on) and the organic farming that mark quality white winemaking today. Along those lines, it was disappointing, if not entirely surprising, to find that a standard-bearer like Mastroberardino’s Radici fell flat in our most recent tasting, in that it still bears the marks of that spic-and-span enology: just five months in steel before bottling, the sort of wham-bam winemaking that attends neutral pinot grigio. It was perhaps a warning sign of what happens when pioneers fall into the doldrums.
Compare that to the Ciro 906, which is similarly aged in steel, but for nearly a year, after native-yeast fermentation and with its lees frequently stirred. If this seems like a small detail, it actually communicates a world of difference in intent—a belief that there’s a lot more to get out of fiano than a dollop of coastal freshness. Same with San Salvatore’s Pian del Stio, which uses the technique of cryomaceration—soaking the grapes at very low temperatures—to extract more texture and flavor. That verges on more modernity than fiano needs, but the results are indisputably good.
Perhaps the greatest sign of confidence in fiano is that it has broken past its geographic origins—not only to nearby regions like Puglia, but also to other shores. A modest partisanship for fiano has sprouted in Australia, where several excellent versions from Oliver’s Taranga, Tellurian and Alpha Crucis can be found (although they’re rarely exported), and especially to California, where Megan and Ryan Glaab of Ryme Cellars make a fiano that can run laps around a lot of Campanian examples.
My hope is that both fiano’s global spread, and some well-due love at home in Campania, continue to grow, and that the grape takes its rightful place alongside vermentino, chardonnay and the like as a white wine that everyone needs to know.
Pietracupa Fiano di Avellino
Sabino Loffredo has been working since the 1990s from the small town of Montefredane, outside Avellino, to show the charms of hillside white wines (he also grows greco and falanghina on his seven and a half hectares, in addition to red aglianico). Aged eight months in steel, his fiano has a Chablis-like flint to it, and then the full flesh of it hits you: a deep iodine-like mineral presence, Castelvetrano olive, the texture just a step shy of buttery, with power and grace and a great resinous bite.
See also: La Rivolta, Guido Marsella, De Conciliis
- Price: $25
- Vintage: 2015
- From: Panebianco
Ciro Picariello Ciro 906 Fiano di Avellino
Over the past 20 years since they started in 1997, the Picariellos have found that magic combination for their wines: meticulous organic farming at high elevations (1,600 to 2,100 feet) outside Avellino, very late picking and long fermentations and aging. Their benchmark fiano di Avellino was on our Hot 25 last year and the 906 steps up even more, using very old vines in Summonte. It’s a wine meant to age, and time serves it well (which is why the 2013 is just now appearing). Full of lime curd, matcha tea and distinctive bright mineral, it’s a hell of a mouthful—ripe with green and yellow fruit and intense, chewy and smoky. Proof positive of fiano’s potential for greatness.
See also: I Pentri, Quintodecimo
- Price: $29
- Vintage: 2013
- From: Polaner Selections
San Salvatore Pian di Stio Paestum Fiano
San Salvatore is located much farther south, well past Naples and Salerno, near the Campanian border with Basilicata. And the little-known Paestum appellation sits by the Cilento National Park. A new arrival to the region, founded in 2005, it’s of that breed of pioneering winery taking a gamble in an unknown area. And the Pian di Stio, curiously bottled in a squat 500ml package, is evidence that fiano can and should spread from its Avellinese home. The cryomaceration of the grapes adds a certain density, and if the wine feels more technical than the others, it’s still compelling: frothy and intense in its aromas, with edelweiss and sweet lime, then chewy apple and aniseed to the taste, and a lingering subtle fruitiness.
See also: I Cacciagalli, Cantina di Lisandro
- Price: $32/500ml
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Banville Wine Merchants
THE GATEWAY DRUG
Luigi Maffini Kratos Paestum Fiano
Maffini, along with Feudi di San Gregorio and Terredora di Paolo, was one of the stalwarts of that enologically minded early-2000s movement in Campania. But Luigi and Raffaella Maffini continue to make one of the old benchmark fianos, Kratos, similarly grown farther south, near Cilento and the region of Basilicata. It’s a bit more compact and closed, perhaps because its four months aging seems a bit quick, and almost more reminiscent of grüner veltliner than fiano. But there’s a glossiness to the texture, a rich pear flavor, and a slightly piney, vermentino-like bitterness.
- Price: $21
- Vintage: 2016
- From: Panebianco