Posted by Keith Wallace

Falanghina is derived from the Latin falangae, which refers to stakes used to support the grape in an ancient wine training method called alla putuelan. Falanghina is grown primarily in Campania but is also found in Puglia and Lazio. Together with Anglianico, it is thought to be the oldest grape variety in Campania. 

Like many ancient Italian grape varieties, Falanghina is thought to have been brought to Italy by the Greeks, who founded the city of Neopolis, today known as Naples, around the 7th century BCE. After the Greeks, Romans took over Italy by around 300 BC, and the winemaking region of Pompeii in Campania became the center of wine production and commerce until the last stages of the Roman empire around the 1st-3rd century AD. Piney the Elder, a Roman historian, wrote in Naturalis Historia about grape varieties used in winemaking during that era, and Falanghina was among those listed. 

It is widely stated in the popular press that the ancient wine Falernian, enjoyed by the Roman aristocracy, was made from the Falanghina grape; however, many other claims of different grapes comprising Falernian its actual grape variety still need to be discovered. 

Historical record reports that Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, covering the ancient city of Pompeii and surrounding towns in Campania in 6-7 meters of pumice stone and ash. This allowed for preserving all aspects of Roman life, including wine growing and production, until Pompeii began to be excavated in the mid-18th century. Today, a public-private partnership between the Archaeological Superintendence of Pompeii and Mastroberardino wine estate is trying to re-create Pompeii’s vineyards and winemaking methods. 

As part of this project, in 1995, environmental biologists from Pompeii’s Applied Research Laboratory started identifying where old vineyards were in Pompeii. The vineyards were located near the coliseum, with archaeological evidence of rooms and equipment for wine production. Wine is thoughts to have been sold to people on their way to the arena, similar to how we think of bars today. Grape varieties making up the Pompeii vineyards were also identified from ancient frescos, root imprints, Roman authors, and DNA analysis so they could be re-planted. Falanghina was among the first eight grapes planted in Pompeii’s experimental vineyards in 1996. 

At least two genetically distinct Falanghina varieties are currently known: Falanghina Flegrea and Falanghina Beneventana. These have slightly different organoleptic properties since they are specific grape varieties, and studies continue today to determine whether more varieties exist. Falanghina Flegrea is concentrated around Naples, especially Campi Flegrei, a volcanic area on the Amalfi Coast, whereas Falanghina Beneventanna is concentrated around Benevento, 40 miles inland from Naples in central Campania.

Piero Mastroberardino, the winemaker from the Mastroberardino wine estate who is part of the Pompeii archeological project, currently uses several grapes identified for his estate’s wine production. He grows and produces wine from Falanghina Beneventanna in central Campania. It should be noted that Piero’s father, Antonio Mastroberardino, is credited with being the first winemaker in modern times who believed that local grape varieties from Campania could be produced as excellent wine and widely sold. As a result, he brought several grape varieties back from extinction after WW II, including Aglianico, Greco, and Fiano. 

However, neither Piero nor his father, Antonio, appear to be the prominent people that brought Falanghina back from extinction. From my research, two people have been working in parallel in two other areas of Campania that rescued Falanghina Flegrea and Falanghina Beneventanna, respectively.

The first person was Leonardo Mustilli, credited with bringing back Falanghina. Mustilli was originally an engineer who, in the 1970s, started working with other local producers to spearhead the reproduction and propagation of vines from abandoned vineyards in the town of Sant’Agata dei Goti. This is in a sub-region of the DOC Sannio, which is part of the Benevento and Avellino provinces in central Campania. 

Mustilli was the first to produce a monovarietal Falanghina wine in 1979. The vines he initially brought back from extinction were identified as Falanghina Beneventana though he later planted both the Beneventana and Falanghina varieties. Leonardo Mustilli died in 2017, but the Mustilli winery is now run by his two daughters, Anna Chiara and Paola, who continue to grow and produce wine from Falanghina grapes. Today, the sisters Mustilli grow their favored Beneventana variety because it allows for more structure, acidity, and complexity in their wines. Mustilli Winery currently makes two styles of wine from Falanghina Beneventana: a crisp Falanghina del Sannio and a fuller-bodied, single-vineyard wine called Vigna Segreta. 

The second person who should also be credited with bringing back Falanghina is Giuseppe Fortunato, also an engineer by training, at the Contrada Salandra wine estate in Campi Flegrei DOC. This DOC is also known as the Phlegraean Fields, a volcanic area with craters and thermal springs from the remains of a large underwater volcano. Vineyards at Contrada Salandra consist of Falanghina Flegrea and Piedirosso grapes (an ancient red variety). When Giuseppe Fortunato’s father bought the property in 1980, Falanghina vines survived and still existed. 

A unique feature of Falanghina grown here is that phylloxera did not affect grapes grown in the volcanic soil of Campi Flegrei, so vines are ungrafted, planted piede franco (on their own roots). Contrada Salandra is very small, consisting of about 5 hectares of vines, and having started as a beekeeping farm. The picture of a bee on its label today symbolizes a connection to that earlier purpose. 

Ian D’Agata is quoted as stating that “Contrada Salandra’s version (of Falanghina) is delicately herbal, brightly mineral and very fresh, with a steely quality that elevates it to the level of a grand vin” (“Contrada Salandra”). I obtained a 2018 bottle of Contrada Salandra’s Campi Flegrei Falanghina and found that to be an apt description. In addition, I found notes of granny smith apple, citron, honey butter, and almond together with a vegetal-like funkiness.

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