In 79 AD, the massive, destructive eruption of Mount Vesuvius brought tragedy to Campania in Southern Italy. The eruption infamously destroyed and buried Pompeii in volcanic ash, freezing the ancient city in time. My visit to Pompeii in 2010 taught me that mother nature must always be respected, as I witnessed her power firsthand. But mother nature gives and takes. Though this volcanic eruption was undoubtedly tragic, it laid the groundwork of volcanic soils that would yield sensational wines thousands of years later. Piedirosso, an ancient red variety that likely originated in Campania, is one of several grapes thriving on the volcanic slopes of Mount Vesuvius today.
The Variety: Piedirosso
In Italian, Piedirosso translates to red feet, referring to the distinctive red stems of the variety. The stem has three red colored branches that resemble a dove’s foot. Per’e Palummo is the name of the variety in the local Neapolitan dialect, which means dove or pigeon-footed red. In Campania, this variety is also known as Streppa Rosso, Piedirosso Benventano, and Piedirosso Napoletano.
According to Ian D’Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy, historians traced Piedirosso’s roots to an ancestral variety called Colombina, a variety popular in the writings of Pliny the Elder. However, genetic research has disproven relation between these two varieties.
Piedirosso bunches are medium to medium-large in size, relatively loose with two wings and rounded, three-lobed leaves. This is a mid-ripening, vigorous variety well suited to volcanic soils. Additionally, Piedirosso is susceptible to downey mildew, but has good resistance to other fungal diseases.
More often than not, Piedirosso is used in blends under the Vesuvio D.O.C. and its sub-designation, Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio DOC. Once widely cultivated in the post-phylloxera era, Piedirosso experienced a decline in vineyard plantings. However, like many ancient varieties, Piedirosso is currently undergoing a renaissance. Today, this variety is Campania’s second most planted red grape behind Aglianico. Furthermore, the production of single-varietal Piedirosso wines is increasingly more common.
Vineyards and Climate in Campania
Though Piedirosso grows throughout Campania, production is mainly centered around Mount Vesuvius where the best examples grow in volcanic soils. Vineyards thrive in the warm Mediterranean climate moderated by the cooling effects of the nearby sea.
The massive, ancient volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii created the soil’s foundation. While subsequent eruptions over the years, most recently in 1944, further spread volcanic ash throughout the region. The dark, volcanic soils are mineral-rich, relatively infertile, and well-draining. Many of the vines here are ungrafted because phylloxera and other destructive diseases and parasites cannot survive in the mineral rich, loose volcanic soils.
The Slopes of Mount Vesuvius
Mount Vesuvius’ volcanic eruptions eject more volcanic sand, ash, and lapilli (Latin for little stones), rather than fluid lava. The volcanic pea or walnut-sized matter, called tephra, helps to create the loose, well-draining soils. These volcanic mineral-rich soils are high in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, which provide great growing conditions for the vine as well. The vines struggle in the loose soil, digging deep in search of water and nutrients. In turn, this struggle yields more flavorful, concentrated grapes.Grapes grown in volcanic soils like those of Mount Vesuvius yield wines with striking flavors, depth, complexity, and often a distinctive salty, mineral quality.
Vines grow at varying elevations around Mount Vesuvius because the volcano has two summits—Somma and Vesuvio.
Somma has fine, powdery and sandy soils with many vines planted pre-phylloxera. This summit’s slopes are north facing and Somma offers a damper climate. Piedirosso grapes grown here produce lighter, more delicate wines. The Vesuvio summit experiences a drier, sunnier climate to the south and the soil has more sediment. Wines from Veusvio are generally more intense and aromatic.
Piedirosso in the Glass
In single-varietal wines, Piedirosso offers a deep ruby color in the glass. Wines are typically full-bodied with soft, plush tannins. Plum, cherry, and brambly wild berries are characteristic aromas and flavors of the variety. Top expressions also show notes of espresso, wet earth, and mushroom.
Generally, Piedirosso wines are produced using only stainless steel to preserve the salty minerality attributed to the volcanic soils. Piedirosso from Campania is capable of withstanding 10-20 years of cellaring. These wines are juicy and intensely fruity without giving up structure. Plus, their tannins make this a great wine to savor alongside food.
Vesuvio D.O.C. + Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio D.O.C.
A variety of designations in Campania cover Piedirosso, such as Taburno, Campo Flegrei, Capri, Amalfi Coast, Falerno del Massico, Ischia, Penisola Sorrentina, Sanno, and Vesuvio.
Established in 1983, the Vesuvio D.O.C. is the most well-known for Piedirosso wines. This D.O.C. encompasses the sub-designation Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio where Piedirosso dominates rosso and rosato wines. When Vesuvio D.O.C. wines achieve an alcohol level of 12% or higher, they are classified under the Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio D.O.C.
Production regulations require that the wine consists of a minimum of 50% Piedirosso grapes. Olivella (a.k.a. Sciscinoso) and Aglianico can make up 30% or less of the blend. The remaining 20% can be other red grape varieties suitable for cultivation in the province of Naples. The Superiore and Riserva designations require a 13% ABV or more. While the Riserva designation also requires 2 years of barrel aging. Additionally, the Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio D.O.C includes bianco, spumante, and liquoroso styles.
Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio translates to “tears of Christ on Visuvio.” Varying legends explain the name, the most common of which says that a piece of paradise fell into the Gulf of Naples when Lucifer was expelled from heaven. Christ wept, grieving for the loss of his best angel. Vines were born where His tears fell on Vesuvio, hence the name Lacryma Christi.
The Winery: Mastroberardino
Mastroberardino is a legendary name in Italian wine. The family established their winery and estate in 1878. The Mastroberardino family has been entrenched in the evolution of Campanian wine for over two centuries. The first evidence of the family’s presence in Irpinia dates back to the mid-eighteenth century when the family constructed its headquarters in the village of Atripalda. The ancient cellars are still located there today.
Ten generations of Mastroberardinos have led the family business through many ups and downs. Notably, Antonio Mastroberardino rebuilt his entire family estate from ruins following WWII. While others in the region were focusing on international varieties, Mastroberardino honored the indigenous varieties of Campania. They elevated the Mastroberardino legacy upon the native varieties of their region, producing wines that differentiated and elevated Campania on the market. The winery completely revitalized varieties like Fiano, Greco, and Aglianico. By embracing their native varieties, Mastroberardino forever forged their position among the great producers of Italy.
To learn more about the impressive history of the Mastroberardino family, check out Museo D’Impresa Mastroberardino Atripalda. Or get a behind the scenes look at the winery and hear the legendary story from the Mastroberardino family on the Campania episode of Wine Masters TV Italy.
Tasting Notes: Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio D.O.C. 2019
- 100% Piedirosso from 10-year-old vineyards with south-east exposure at 170m above sea level
- Vinified in stainless steel tanks and aged in bottle at least one month before release
- Medium intensity ruby red color with ruby red reflections
- This wine has medium intensity aromas of red cherry, red plum, raspberry, blackberry bramble and a delicate violet floral note
- Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, grippy medium + tannins, low alcohol, juicy plum and cherry on the palate
I opened this bottle too soon, but I purchased it for this series and had to taste it. This wine will really come together nicely with a couple more years in bottle, showing more harmonious characteristics. But it’s definitely a well-made wine.
Piedirosso is the perfect pairing for pastas or polenta with meat ragu, wild mushrooms, or truffles. This wine also pairs deliciously with lamb chops in a mustard thyme sauce, balsamic glazed pork chops with roasted rosemary potatoes, and stuffed portobello mushrooms.