Located at the “shin” of Italy, bordered on the east by the Tyrrhenian Sea and set between the Garigliano River to the north and the Gulf of Policastro to the south, Campania is a tale of extinction, poverty, emigration, persecution, and resurrection. Encompassing the cities of Naples and Salerno, the countryside is full of treasures, including the orange blossom splendor of the steep and winding slopes of the Amalfi Coast to the archeological treasures of Pompei – including resurrected secrets of it being the center of wine production before extinction by Vesuvius. In addition, Campania has a rich history of large-scale migration of humans into the region, including the Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, and the Aragon Kingdom of Spain. A town that would be very relatable if someone from today had visited in 78AD before Armageddon, it navigated through the “Kingdom of Two Sicilies,” poverty, emigration, two world wars, and the formation of Italy in 1861 as a nation to resurrect its proper title of Campania Felix or “happy land.”
Like the resurrection of Campania and the secrets of Pompei, the tale of the near extinction and resurrection of the Pallagrello Bianco and Nero grapes by a remarkable pair of individuals is a fascinating story I discovered and chose having narrowed the choices from almost 400 Italian grapes to two dozen nearly extinct and rescued grapes (including finalists of Barsaglina, Ruzzese, Pecorino, Nieddera, Uva Longanesi, and Tazzelenghe).
Winemaking has a storied history in this region. Campania is a critical wine region of Italy with a wealth of historical links to wine. The considerable influence of ancient empires has yielded the first known trellis system built by the Etruscans in the sixth century, continuing through the Greeks and Romans’ “land of staked vines.” Today, the region is home to four DOCGs, fifteen DOCs, and ten IGTs and has an ever-increasing percentage of DOC/DOCG wines currently estimated at 20% (“Campania”).
Like many Italian regions, Campania boasts numerous grape varieties, some growing almost nowhere else, including Aglianico, Fiano, Greco, and Falanghina. Campania’s wine success owes much to the varied microclimates and vineyard terroir. Viticulture thrives from abundant sunshine in the afternoon “Mezzogiorno,” dry, hot summers, mild winters, and volcanic soil. In addition, the coastal winds blow in from the Tyrrhenian Sea across the Apennine Mountains to create an exceptional microclimate.
Pallagrello Nero and Bianco cultivation were dramatically reduced in the twentieth century, suffering first from phylloxera’s devastation in the mid-nineteenth century and then from Campania’s hemorrhaging emigration caused by poverty and both world wars. As a result, the varieties declined to near extinction. It was only in the 1990s that surviving vines were found and identified in an abandoned vineyard and rescued by Peppe Mancini, Manuela Piancastelli, and Alberto Barletta. Peppe, a lawyer and wine lover, wanted to revive the wines he had tasted in his youth. So, he, Manuela, and Alberto scoured the countryside until they located a few pre-phylloxera vines of each variety. That was the end of Peppe’s law and Manuela’s journalism careers. Mancini and Barletta formed the Vestini Campagnano estate before they parted ways, and the handful of 150-year-old vines became the foundation of the 10 hectares Peppe and Manuela continued to cultivate at their Terre del Principe estate.
Pallagrello derives from “pagliarello,” the mats of straw where the grapes traditionally dried before being eaten as raisins or fermentation to produce “straw” or raisin wine known for their massive tannins and high alcohol. The earliest written mention of the variety is at the end of the eighteenth century under the name Pallarelli including Nero and Bianco.
Both the Pallagrello Nero and Bianco originate from Italy and may originate from Campania’s Caserta region. However, DNA studies have determined that these varieties have no links to other known grapes, and despite their names, Pallagrello Bianco and Pallagrello Nero are not related to each other: They are different varieties.
These low-yield Campanian grapes were at one time prestigious, evident by cultivation in the eighteenth century under the names Piedimonte Bianco and Piedimonte Rosso in the famous vineyard “Vigna del Ventaglio.” Located near the royal palace of Caserta in Campania, the renowned architect Luigi Vanvitelli built this vineyard in 1775 for King Ferdinand I of the Borbone dynasty and “The Kingdom of Two Sicilies.” In the gardens was where he placed the Vigna del Ventaglio, a semi-circle of vineyard laid out in ten plots to resemble a hand-held fan. Each parcel contained a different variety of importance in the kingdom of Naples, two of which were Pallagrello Bianco and Pallagrello Nero.
Today, the varieties are grown in small quantities, mainly in the Campanian Provence of Caserta. In 2020, there was a total cultivated area of only 113 hectares in the Provence of Caserta communes of Alvignano and Campagnano.
Pallagrello Nero generally produces tannin-rich, high-alcohol red wines with black pepper, red cherry, currant, blackberry, and tobacco notes. Pallagrello Bianco is like Viognier but with better acidity, higher alcohol, and with honeysuckle, pepper, white floral, and herbal notes. Notable rare and exciting varietal IGT wine producers include Terre del Principe, Terre del Volturno, Vestini Campagnano, and Castelloducale.
The wines are complex and elegant and are undoubtedly hidden gems that deserve attention. Unfortunately, low cultivation has made Pallagrello wines nearly invisible, but they are worth seeking out, just as the rich resurrection of Campania is worth seeking out.