Agnanum: Wine By Hand In the Shadow of Vesuvius

Raffaele Moccia and his father, Gerraro, 85, tend old vines and make organic wine on the steep slopes of an extinct volcanic across the Bay of Naples from Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculaneum. The vines are above the ancient village of Agnano near Pozzuoli, best known for being the hometown of Sophia Loren.

Agnanum map copy
Winemaking here in the Campi Flagrei (meaning “Burning Fields”) dates back to ancient times, but nearly all the vineyards have been abandoned because they have to be worked by hand with a hoe.
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The steepness of the hill and the way the vines are terraced rules out any mechanization or even the use of a mule.
terraces copy
Unlike the Etna volcano terraces, these are simply cut out of the volcanic soil without rock wall reinforcement. Why? Because there is no volcanic rock to make walls, only volcanic sand. The terraces have to be continually maintained or they will slide down, destroying the vines.
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Raffaele and I walked up through the vineyard to this small hut, shaded by trees where we found Gerraro taking a break in front of this window.
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He spends all day in the vines, which he began tending when he was four years old, and rests in the hut. The photo doesn’t convey the liveliness of his eyes or the way he seems belong to these 6 hectares (15 acres) and vice versa.

His great-grandfather became famous for the wine he sold to restaurants in Naples in bulk. But after the Second World War, the family was going to abandon winemaking and cut the vines down. Gerraro believed in the old vines (many over 100 years old) and planted more (now 60 years old). He passed his love of the vineyards on to Raffaele, who was the first in the family to bottle wine (2002) instead of selling it in bulk. Now, Raffaele’s son, Gerraro Jr., is beginning to help out in the cellar.

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This is the ladder that Garraro was using that day.

The reason that Raffaele, Garraro and generations before invested in making wine here from two native varieties (Falanghina-white) and (Piedirosso-red) is the terroir. The combination of soil, climate, location and way the vines are worked yield extraordinary wines that are low in alcohol and crisp (lots of acidity and minerality) despite the torrid heat. They are way outside the norm for wines made with those varieties.

What are Agnanum’s secrets?

First, the volcanic soil. In this video, Raffaele explains that there are four layers going down:
– fine sand at the top,
– pumice rock with pillus (small bits of hardened lava),
– dark volcanic sand, and
– at the bottom, basalt rock crushed into coarse sand during eruptions a million years ago.

The roots of the vines, stressed by the dry climate and poor soil, penetrate through each distinct layer looking for water and nourishment. Along the way, they pick up minerals from each kind of soil, enriching the grapes with complex aromas and flavors.

But to grow in this soil with very little rain, the vines require backbreaking work and special techniques. First, the terraces have to be maintained because they tend to slide down the hill. Then, to combat the problem of water runoff, Raffaele uses a hoe to form channels and a kind of basin around each vine.

He allows grass to grow wild to compete with the vines for water (stress creates fewer, higher quality grapes) and keep the vines cooler. When it is cut, it creates “green manure” to nourish the vines. He also adds rabbit manure, which is easily accessible because his other business is a free-range, organic rabbit farm. Rafaele doesn’t use any chemical treatments on the vines.
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Near a shed in the vineyard, Raffaele found a place to show me how the white, top layer looks. The poor soil and lack of water mean that the vines produce fewer grapes, packed with lots of flavor.
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Another remarkable aspect of the terroir is that the vines are adjacent to the National Nature Preserve of the Astroni. It is a densely forested crater with a lake at the bottom. The wall that separates it from the vines was originally built in 1465 by the King of Naples, then, modernized by the Bourbons in the nineteenth century.
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Raffaele took me to a hole in the wall that seemed like the entrance into a Neapolitan version of Narnia.
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The forest, about 500 acres, is one of the oldest remaining in Europe, was dark and cool, a complete contrast to the torrid heat we were standing in. Agnanum is the only vineyard in the Campi Flagrei abutting the forest.

Its biodiversity and cooling effect create health in the vineyard and add both elegance and complexity to the wines.
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Another feature is the sea with its cooling breezes just a few kilometers in front of the vineyards. This adds saltiness, another form of minerality to the wine. Unfortunately, the area between the vineyard and the sea has been urbanized.
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The white part of the hillside in this photo is a volcanic caldera, a place where hot sulphur steam rises up periodically. My camera wasn’t good enough to capture it.
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In the cellar, Raffaele ferments with native yeasts in stainless steel, adding only a small amount of sulphites at bottling.
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All of the wines are an incredible value ($15-20), still undiscovered. That can’t last for long. (Look on wine-searcher or write one of the importers Scuola del Vino.)

We first tasted:
Agnanum Falanghina Campi Flagrei Bianco DOC 2014
Delicate but complex. Very fresh and citrusy with lots of minerality from the soil and a hint of saltiness from the sea. (12% alcohol)
NB: Raffaele produces only about 10,000 bottles wine with the most being this wine.

Agnanum “Sabbia Vulcanico” Falangina Campania IGT 2014
A fascinating combination of Falanghina and five other off-the-beaten-track native varieties including Gelsomino, Catalanesca and Capritone. It seemed to expand in my mouth, even more delicate and more persistent than the Falanghina above but with the same crazy crispness.

(Sabbia Vulcanica translates to “Volcanic Sand”.)

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Agnanum “Sabbia Vulcanica” Piedirosso Campania IGT 2014
100% Piedirosso (the “feminine” grape variety mostly used to lighten and add freshness to the heavier, more masculine, Aglianico in typical Campania blends). A clean, vertical red. Elegant. More minerality and acidity than tannins. (13% alcohol)

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Azienda Agricola Agnanum di Raffaele Moccia
Via Vicinale abbandonata agli Astroni, 3
Agnano (Pozzuoli)

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