In the south of Italy, about 60 miles northeast of Naples, beyond the gleaming azure of the Tyrrhenian Sea and far from the corniche, flower-bedecked tourist towns of Amalfi, Salerno, and Sorrento, lies the Campania, the garden and vineyard of ancient Rome. Known to the Romans as the Campania Felix, the face with the open smile, its produce of grain, nuts, vegetables, fruit and of course wine, flowed north along the Appian Way to grace the tables of the Imperial City.
Falernum or Falernian, the most famous and highly regarded of Roman wines originated on the lava-enriched slopes of the Campania where vines were said to grow as tall as houses and twine around trees. Today, the lush green fields and agrarian beauty of Campania remain, but odd as it may seem, the outside world has known very little of the viticulture glory of this ancient land - until now.
Amid the hills of the Campania at Fontanavecchia (the name means old fountain), in sight of the remains of the ancient Roman bridge "Ponte Fenucchio" that spans the river Calore, rises the Azienda Agricola Orazio Rillo. Founded in 1980 by Orazio Rillo, this gentleman and his son, Libero, have resurrected the ancient tradition of quenching the parched throats of far-flung lands. Together, they lovingly nurture nearly 20 acres of vines planted in 8 separate, south facing vineyards to produce about seven thousand cases of wine annually. Although not alone in their endeavor to revive the viticultural glory of this earthquake-prone province, the Azienda Agricola Orazio Rillo is certainly one of the finest in the land.
Presently, the Rillo's produce only two types of wine: Falanghina, an apple crisp white wine that was as well known to the Romans as it is today to diners in the seaside restaurants of Naples; and Aglianico, the heir to the ancient red Falernum of Roman lore.
The word "aglianico" (al-yan-i-co) is an italianization of the Greek word, "elleniko," meaning "Greek," from which our word "hellenic" is derived. Indeed, it was the Mycenean Greeks who brought the flavorful aglianico to southern Italy from Greece in their quest to civilize the Italian peninsula in the 7th century BC. So fecund were the Campania and the surrounding provinces that constituted "Magna Graecia" that the Greeks referred to southern Italy as "Oenotria," "land of vines."
Certainly, the hillside vineyards of the Rillo estate yield aglianico worthy of a patrician's table. There the holy trinity of volcanic soil on south facing slopes, hot, dry summers, and cool country nights combine to produce the optimum growing conditions for the rich, full-flavored aglianico. Fermented in the traditional manner with considerable skin contact, using no temperature controls, Fontanavecchia is born a full-flavored wine of formidable structure. Still, with each passing year, the tannins melt away into layer upon luscious layer of textured velvet. Combining grace with power, it is easy to see why the Greeks and Romans were so enamored of aglianico and why the grape remains southern Italy's finest varietal.