For a year I lived in Salerno, a port city in Southern Italy close to the Amalfi Coast. And never far from my mind was Monte Vesuvio, the notorious volcano that famously buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in its ash and pyroclastic flow only a couple of millennia ago. Pliny the Younger (the nephew and adopted son of Pliny the Elder, who died in this catastrophic event while trying to rescue people) described in letters to friends a horrific scene, impossible to imagine if you weren’t there. Interestingly, an even bigger eruption in 1631 killed over 3,000 people. It’s most recent was not too long ago, in 1944. (Watch the video here.) Every trip into Naples for a pizza or to catch a plane brought thoughts that maybe today would be the day…
Volcanoes are violent. And the most powerful can change an entire landscape in hours. Consider Washington State’s Mount Saint Helens that erupted in 1980. Take a look at a Google earth map (link) that shows with great clarity what happens when 1,300 feet of mountaintop gets blown off of a near 10,000-foot peak. There are numerous videos that show what happened with the flooding and pyroclastic flows that devastated an entire region. (Here’s one) Even as far as five hundred miles away where I grew up in Montana, the daytime sky was black and it rained ash for days.
Monte Vulture was one of Italy’s most brutal volcanoes and, thankfully for humankind, its last party ended about 140,000 years ago. Several eruptions that geologists know of preceded the last, which brought the mother load of destruction on the area and the volcano itself. In the last event, it literally flipped its lid and devastated the already terrorized landscape around it. Once the massive magma chamber exhausted itself, it collapsed and gave shape to today’s inner sanctuary of nearly tropical-like nature inside and around the mountain, with the two side-by-side, mirror-like Monticchio
lakes inside the remaining caldera. (Take a look at it on 3-D.
Monte Vulture’s seven peaks surround the sunken caldera and sit like a crown. During the volcano’s rein, the pattern was a continued series of eruption, flooding, eruption, flooding, eruption and finally, collapse. Between the tens of thousands of years between eruptions, alluvium of various sedimentary deposits was brought in by torrent water flows that originated from the nearby Apennine Mountains to the west. Lacustrine (from lakes) and marine (from the sea) calcareous sediments created a sort of stratigraphic layer cake of conglomerate depositions and volcanic debris flows of magma, tuff and other pyroclastic materials. It should also be noted that not all of the volcanic depositions originated from Monte Vulture; other locations of smaller eruptions took place as far as one hundred kilometers away from the mountain.
Vulture Geological Setting
The geological setting of each area is diverse and difficult to generalize, except that like many wine regions, things can change dramatically from one meter to the next. However, what could be said from a geological standpoint concerning the resulting wines is that each site is important to note based on its unique soil composition and altitude. Even some of the highest altitude vineyards that sit close to 700 meters may still have some non-volcanic alluvial deposition. That said, it could be a reasonable generalization to state that likely more than 75% of the vineyards in the Vulture appellation are on volcanic soils of some sort, while the rest is alluvial and likely to have some volcanic material. It’s a lot like its more famous neighbor, Taurasi, but with an inverse proportion of these two rock/soil types.
Vulture and Taurasi Comparison
Everyone who has any interest in better understanding various terroirs in southern Italy consistently asks—especially of Vulture producers—how Vulture and Taurasi stack up, not only in quality, but in terroir imprint. The answer may be as equally simple as it is complex. I will present some considerations, a touch of opinion, and leave the rest to you. Given how curious I am about this inquiry, we’ll go a bit deep, and it will help to illustrate the more interesting characteristics of Vulture and bring more context to the discussion.
First, let’s start with a few similarities of the wine regions: 1) Altitude (which of course doesn’t account for the rare outlier): Vulture 350m-700+m, Taurasi 350m-700+m; 2) Communes: Vulture 15, Taurasi 17; 3) Harvest dates: both depend on altitude, vine age, yield, biotype and more, but they usually start, as of the late 2010s, in mid-October and finish in early November. There are likely more similarities to speak of, but that’s a start. It’s thought that the latest picking areas of Taurasi finish slightly later (like days) after Vulture’s coldest zones.
DOC and DOCG Laws
The differences by law of the two DOCGs are as follows: Taurasi was upgraded from a DOC to DOCG in 1993; Vulture upgraded to DOCG in 2011. Not to state the obvious, but the near twenty year separation between the DOCG upgrades clearly shows that Taurasi carried its tradition forward without as much lost to the past—and in no small part due to the legacy of the Mastroberardino family’s ten generations and Antonio, the family legend that brought them out of the ruin of post-World War II and into Italian wine immortality—Vulture didn’t get it back together until more recently. (This is covered more above in The Story section on this page.)
Taurasi DOCG wines may be blended with other grapes (like Piedirosso or Barbera) and must be at least 85% Aglianico, but most serious cantinas use exclusively Aglianico. In the Aglianico del Vulture region, all DOC and DOCG wines must be 100% Aglianico. As for aging before release, Taurasi is required to be aged in the cellar for three years with a minimum of one of those in wood cask before bottling; Taurasi Riserva aged for four years, with a minimum of one and a half years in wood; Vulture Superiore for at least three years with a minimum of one year in wood and one year in bottle before release; Vulture Superiore Riserva for five years total, with a minimum of two of those years in wood and one year in bottle before release. Clearly both laws uphold the common understanding that serious Aglianico needs a proper and lengthy aging to be worthy of their respective DOCGs and to approach their greatest potential.
It’s in the defining terroir aspects where it becomes a little more challenging to navigate, especially with Campania historically suffering more than many wine regions from too much misinformation concerning its geologic setting, and how heterogeneous it can be. Since geology was already touched on in the first part of this section (Lay of the Land) we’ll start there. But first, I’d like to point out that many old books and articles written by wine journalists on Taurasi appear to be vagulely researched (if researched at all beyond a few cantinas) from a geological standpoint; so I suggest sticking to the most recent material that’s begun to set it straight. Somehow it was either overlooked, not talked about much until recently, or writers simply preferred the sexy and simple narrative of lumping everything into the volcanic arena—like many used to do when speaking of the “granite hill of Hermitage,” which only represents about 15% of the geological setting of that hill.
Another perspective I’ve gained in my years traveling through less-dissected wine regions is that the growers who own the land largely misunderstand the geological setting of their vineyards; but who can blame them, they’re farmers not geologists. (To be clear, I’ m not a geologist, but merely an obsessive, neurotic wine importer with a particular penchant for rock and geology.) I’ve witnessed firsthand while traveling for some years with geologists in Europe that most winegrowers don’t really know what they’ve got from a scientific perspective, not only geologically, but also viticulturally and enologically. The historical knowledge of winegrowing is a millennia of observation applied in a practical way, not so much a technical one.
Volcanic Origins: A Misunderstanding?
Both Taurasi and Vulture can relate to some degree on the volcanic origin of much of their soil and bedrock. However, to claim that Taurasi is a “volcanic wine region” would be like saying that Sancerre is a silex wine region. Of course, specific areas of Sancerre do have a lot of silex (in English we call it chert, or flint), but there are more calcareous marine sediments—limestone. The volcanic elements in Taurasi are often stated to have come from an extinct volcano, but the blanket of volcanic deposits that cover some areas with limestone bedrock may have come from a series of Campanian volcanoes, not just one. According to Paolo Giannandrea, Professor of geology from the University of Basilicata, a local authority on Monte Vulture, believes the culprits are likely Vesuvius, which is not extinct, and/or local eruptive centers. He also states that the Phlegraean fields (a super volcano bordering Naples) and Roccamonfina, to the north can’t yet be ruled out. If one speaks of all seventeen communes of Taurasi, the majority of land is on limestone bedrock while the fifteen communes of Aglianico del Vulture are principally volcanic-derived soil and bedrock.
Exposure is another consideration. Much of Vulture is pretty flat or softly rolling, and with some notable hills (again, fluctuating between 350m-700m) and some medium-sized terraced sites. Taurasi is not really that flat and most of the vineyards are on hillsides and large sloping plateaus. Vulture is largely exposed all day, with the exception of those that sit at the east end of Monte Vulture that may catch its late afternoon shadow, or down inside a small erosional valley carved out by waterways. Taurasi is not as obviously exposed to such an all-day supply of sunshine and one could theorize that more consideration goes into expositions in the area. Exposure interplays with the climatic influence, which is very particular to each site’s exposure and altitude.
The average annual temperatures are similar in both areas, though Vulture has slightly cooler winters than Taurasi. But their rates of precipitation pose one considerable difference between them. In Taurasi’s western end, next to Avellino, the average rainfall is 775mm per year, the same as Beaune, in France, or Sonoma, in California. The Taurasi village has 711mm and some higher altitude sites perhaps a little more or less. Venosa, the capital of Vulture, has a meager 532mm, the same as Australia’s Adelaide, or even less than Tunis, in northern Africa. (It’s a good thing that Vulture maintains some water retentive clay soils.) November has the biggest rainfall for both, which may present a challenge for the late-ripening Aglianico, especially in the higher elevation sites, with Taurasi at a slight disadvantage compared to similar altitude sites in Vulture. Each site and its specific microclimate will present a different result. With more variations in Taurasi, some less-exposed or with completely different exposures (unlike Vulture where almost all sites have open exposures), one could theorize that there would be greater disparity between the subregions and specific vineyards in Taurasi than those within Vulture.
Biotypes of Aglianico are another level of complication, and one that is difficult to navigate without knowledge of the way they grow—in other words, it’s tough to read between the lines of a young, finished wine, but the way they grow is more easily understood by farmers with experience. There are three main biotypes: Taurasi, Taburno and Vulture; and a few others, plus a bunch of clones. And in summary from Ian D’Agata’s book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, the Taurasi biotype has small berries and is less vigorous, Taburno has high natural acidity and the biggest bunches, and Vulture’s are medium in size and render wines more fruit driven and elegantly nuanced. The caveat to the biotype and clonal consideration is a massive can of worms because they are no longer contained within one area or another, and are perhaps more messed up in Vulture because of the likely influx of Campanian clones brought there in the 1980s by outsiders setting up shop and replanting older vines with more productive clones. That said, all of the Latoracca family wines are made with are massal selections from old ancient vineyards; they are all original Vulture biotypes. (Read more about this in the section above in The Story, and look for Attack of the Clones.)
Once you feel like you’ve waded through the mess I’ve presented, you may feel like you’ve end up out of the rabbit hole and staring down a cliff with no bottom in sight. Now we must consider each individual estate, their specific terroirs and the choices made: how they work the land, biotype or clone selection, vine age, vineyard culture and treatments, soil amendments (organic, biodynamic and “natural wine” included), picking times, extractions, aging time and vessel makeup and size, filtration, additives, and on and on.
Terroir and the Winegrower Influence
What seems paramount (and simpler) is the individuality of each specific wine and the producer’s philosophy and practice. The reality is that Vulture can taste like Taurasi, and vice versa. Perhaps you could say that outside of Aglianico’s obvious contribution to each wine, a Taurasi grown on limestone may not relate so clearly to a Vulture on volcanic soil. But I’d posit that if you blind-tasted three wines within the parameters of 100% Aglianico, same vintage, biotype, vine age, altitude, ripeness level and made precisely the same in the cellar, the probability of stark distinction could be improved. Take for example, one Taurasi from limestone soils and the other Taurasi from exclusively volcanic soil, and the third wine a Vulture also exclusively from volcanic soil. If the taster were told only that the wines are from either Taurasi or Vulture, but two of them are from one of the two appellations, I’d bet that the resemblance of the two wines from volcanic soils would be more closely linked than the two Taurasi wines from different soils. What do you think?
I admit it’s difficult to say anything definitive from a macro-orientation between these two areas, save the soil. And many of the growers hesitate to state any empirical separation of the two. Perhaps wines with more cellar age will clarify matters, but Vulture’s disadvantage is that it doesn’t have enough solid references—for historical reasons—to make that a fair comparison. All of this complexity is the reason this question brings a grimace to the face of the growers, followed by a look toward the sky for an answer. Most of them know they really can’t say with certainty what the differences are. They’re wise enough to know that there are too many factors to consider, and when you think you’ve got it nailed, a single sip of wine can change the game. -TV
Acknowledgments, Credits and Useful Links
The historical content of this essay is based on the storytelling of the Latoracca family, with some cross-referencing and fact-checking from various literary sources both online and in books, as well as a scientific review by Paolo Giannandrea, Professor of geology from the Università della Basilicata.
Additional materials were obtained from Paolo Giannandrea, Luigi La Volpe, Claudia Principe, Marcello Schiattarella: Unità stratigrafiche a limiti inconformi e storia evolutiva del volcano medio-pleistocenico di Monte Vulture (Appennino meridionale, Italia) “Unconformity-bounded stratigraphic units and evolutionary history of the middle Pleistocene Monte Vulture volcano, southern Apennines, Italy.”) Bollettino della Società Geologica Italiana., 125 (2006), pages 67-92.
Recommended reading for a short-length but solid summary of Taurasi and its neighboring appellations is the online article, Irpinia: The Heart of Campania, written in 2017 by Daniel Bjugstad, from the GuildSomm website. For an extremely comprehensive examination of the subject by way of subzones of quality Aglianico production (and published literally days after my initial draft of this essay in August 2019) is Ian D’Agata’s book, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. Bravo Ian!
Monte Vulture Geology link: https://www.alexstrekeisen.it/english/provincie/vulture.php
Mount Saint Helens link: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Mt+St+Helensemail@example.com,-122.1227831,9494a,35y,181.53h,67.79t/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x54969956568a2691:0x69ddb4f4b6cf94c7!8m2!3d46.1914006!4d-122.1955508!5m1!1e4
Pompeii Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dY_3ggKg0Bc
1944 Vesuvius Eruption: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bsmv6PyKs0
DOC AND DOCG LAW link: https://italianwine.guide/about-italian-wine/wine-law/
Credit: www.climate-data.org provided the precipitation and temperature information.