Last month I was invited to a winemaker’s luncheon in Campania, Italy. I didn’t have to travel far, though; just to West 54th Street in mid-town Manhattan, to a chic southern Italian restaurant. As I strolled toward my destination, I marveled at the hustle-and-bustle around me, which seemed exceptional even for New York: construction cranes peeked over office buildings, hinting at the sky-high aspirations of local developers. Traffic alternated between fast and slow, but always noisy. I wondered how newcomers like me ever adapted to the pace.
Amid the crush of pedestrians, automobiles, and traffic cops, I checked the address on my lunch invitation, thinking I’d made a mistake. There, in the heart of the block, stood a majestic townhouse, an anachronistic throw-back to quieter, gentler times. My eyes scanned the façade for some confirmation that I’d indeed miscalculated my route. And then I saw the sign for Il Gattopardo – the ocelot, in Italian. I had arrived.
When Il Gattopardo relocated to 13-15 West 54th Street, the restaurant took up residence in one of Manhattan’s most architecturally significant spots. Back in 1897 Henry Hardenbergh, who also designed the Dakota Building and the Plaza Hotel, constructed a row of townhouses in the Beaux Arts Renaissance style. Known locally as Millionaire’s Row, this stretch of West 54th Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and was once home to John D. Rockefeller. I was awed by the beauty of the exterior; I couldn’t wait to see the inside.
Women, Wine, and Wolves
Our host for the luncheon was Susannah Gold, founder of Vigneto Communications, a boutique public relations, marketing, and educational consulting firm serving the food and wine industries. Looking for a way to mesh her professional experience as a journalist and PR specialist with her passion for wine, Susannah created Vigneto in 2007. One of her goals is to connect women winemakers and family-owned wineries with American consumers.
As we took our seats in the private dining room downstairs, Susannah welcomed us and introduced Ilaria Petitto, Managing Director of Società Agricola Donnachiara, established in 2005. Donnachiara focuses on crafting wines that reflect the ancient traditions of Campania. Using native grapes and drawing on five generations of family winemaking history, Ilaria and her family manage each step of the process, from cultivating the vines to blending the wines.
Although the modern winery was built in 2005, the family’s history in Campania traces back several generations to Ilaria’s great-grandmother Chiara – the original Donna Chiara for whom the winery is named. Fiercely protective of her family’s land, Donna Chiara was instrumental in saving it from the ravages of World War II. When her husband, a surgeon in the Italian Red Cross, left home to care for wounded soldiers, Donna Chiara remained on the property she had loved as a child, protecting it as her parents had done during World War I.
And so it progressed, this love of the land, from one strong woman to another, from Donna Chiara to her granddaughter, and then to her daughter, Ilaria who, by the way, has a young daughter of her own named Chiara. Do you see a trend here?
The Italian word chiara means light, bright, or clear. It seems an apt description of the women in this family, who saw a dream clearly enough to build a solid foundation underneath it. And they have shed a bright light on the special wines of Irpinia, a historic region 30 miles east of Naples, which takes its name from the ancient Hirpini tribe. (The tribe itself is named for the local word hirpus, or wolf.)
2016 Donnachiara Beneventano Falanghina IGT “Resilienza” (SRP about $12)
This wine, made from 100% Falanghina, was so aromatic – hedonistic notes of sweet pear, ripe peach, and white flowers jumped out of the glass before I could swirl it; a testament to the careful winemaking techniques meant to preserve them: Grapes were harvested manually, first thing in the morning, and were cooled down upon arriving at the cellar. Alcoholic fermentation occurred in stainless steel tanks, with no malolactic fermentation. The wine saw no oak treatment.
On the palate this Falanghina was soft and round, full of yellow peach and candied lemon peel flavors. Bright acidity lifted the fruit, making for a fresh, delicious mouthful. The finish, with notes of flowers and citrus, was long and pleasant.
The chef at Il Gattopardo created a small plate with four bite-size delights to accompany our first two wines:
- Crostini topped with a crudo of sea bass marinated in lime and herbs
- Pizzetta topped with escarole, olives, and Pecorino cheese
- Fried mozzarella with anchovy sauce
- Arancini with peas, Parmigiano, and veal sauce
2016 Donnachiara Fiano di Avellino DOCG (SRP about $14)
Fiano is one of Campania’s most noteworthy wines, frequently mentioned as one of Italy’s best whites. The tech sheet on this 100% Fiano wine describes it best:
This wine reminds you of the honey bees you see when walking in the vineyards in Montefalcione, place of origin of this wine.
I find it hard to quibble with that assessment. The wine’s aromas are a swirl of tropical fruit mixed with almonds and honeysuckle, and there is just a whiff of smoke. It’s less tropical on the palate, with ripe peach and apricot flavors complemented by a bitter almond note on the finish. Acidity is medium+ providing a balance for the rich fruit. The result is a very enjoyable sip of wine.
2016 Donnachiara Greco di Tufo DOCG (SRP about $14)
Our third wine, 100% Greco, was the color of a ripe yellow pear and offered up aromas of white peach, lemon zest, and Bartlett pear. There was also an intriguing floral note that I couldn’t pin down. On the palate there were flavors of candied lemon, fresh pear, and green apple. Its lacy delicacy belied the structure underneath: crisp acidity and a decidedly mineral texture amped up this Greco’s game. I loved this wine! It had me dreaming of grilled whole fish stuffed with lemons and herbs. Lucky for me, Chef came up with another outstanding option for our table:
- Scialatielli di Grani Antichi ai Frutti di Mare
Scialatielli are long, square-sided noodles native to the cuisine of Campania. This spectacular dish married the pasta with tiny mussels, shrimp, and scallops in a light tomato-herb sauce. I’ve never had a dish like this. The sauce was faintly sweet, and there was just enough of it on the plate to dress the scialatielli. As for the pairing, all I can say is Wow! The citrus and soft pear flavors of the Greco brought out the sweetness of the fresh shellfish; the acidity balanced the tomato sauce. One of the most beautiful wine-food partnerships I’ve experienced.
2015 Donnachiara Irpinia Aglianico DOC (SRP about $20)
My interest in the Aglianico grape has piqued of late. There’s something about the mix of red and black fruit followed by tart acidity and gritty tannins that works for me. So I was really excited to try the red wines of the Donnachiara portfolio.
The Irpinia’s deep ruby robe gave a clue to its aromas – plum, blackberry, and baking spices, and then a nice hit of dirt. Plenty of acid, strong but not overpowering tannins, and a pleasantly long finish with some cinnamon/vanilla/berry notes. A bit like a fresh-baked pie, minus all that sugar. For a young Aglianico, this wine is very approachable; no need to cellar it for a decade, it’s drinking really well right now.
2013 Donnachiara Taurasi DOCG (SRP about $34)
One look at this wine and I was ready to go: deep ruby core, turning garnet toward the edge. Its intense aromas were a symphony of black fruit: cherry, plum, and blackberry, with enticing accents of cocoa and coffee. There was a distinct ribbon of vanilla wrapping around them all, testament to the time spent in oak barriques. A sip revealed ripe black fruit, bittersweet chocolate, and a trace of thyme. As expected, acidity was high and the tannins strong but silky. This wine delivered on my expectations: it was rich, complex, and crying out for red meat.
Speaking of red meat . . .
Our hosts at Il Gattopardo provided the perfect accompaniment to the three Aglianico wines we were tasting:
- Rack of lamb crusted with herbs
2012 Donnachiara Taurasi Riserva DOCG (SRp about $46)
Ilaria explained that Riserva wines are made only in the finest years; the last time they released a Taurasi Riserva was 2008. All of us felt privileged to taste the 2012, which was deeply pigmented and aromatic. The juice rested on the grape skins for 20 days specifically to extract the intense color and aromas that make Aglianico one it Italy’s most sought-after red wines.
As I swirled the glass, I caught notes of blackberry, blueberry, stewed plums, and sweet cherry, as well as baking spices and fresh-ground coffee. It was as rich on the palate, with vibrant, ripe fruit supported by smooth, well-integrated tannins and tangy acidity. Balance, length, intensity, and complexity – this Taurasi Riserva brought together all the things good wine students look for in a high-quality wine.
Another sip reminded me that, for the price, all of these wines represented good value. When Donnachiara’s importer Laurene Camin mentioned that they were available at most Total Wine shops, I thought I was hearing things. Later I checked my local store’s on-line inventory and – lo and behold – there were several Donnachiara offerings. That’s good news for adventurous wine lovers who might not have a specialty shop in their neighborhood.
Learning, Tasting, Appreciating
This was my first winemaker lunch as part of a small group in an intimate setting, and it was one of the most enjoyable wine events I’ve attended. Having the chance to hear her family’s stories directly from Ilaria, tasting each wine and comparing notes with the group, and enjoying a specially-prepared, multi-course meal made for an unforgettable day. Thanks again to Susannah Gold, Ilaria Petitto, and Il Gattopardo for offering me a seat at the table.