Chasing Grapes: The World’s First Premier Cru: Aglianico

Vineyards of Campania
2,700 years ago, on the sun drenched slopes of Mount Falerna near Campania and Latuim in Southern Italy, Aglianico grapes basked in the sun in three very special vineyards. The first vineyard was known as the Caucinian Falernian and was located on the highest slopes, the second vineyard was the Falernian found on the lowest slopes; and between the two vineyards rested the third the prized Faustian Falernian vineyard. These precious vineyards were owned by Roman aristocracy for millennia and are still under vine today. Originally, the Phoenicians cultivated the grape in Greece. During the 7th or 8th BCE the Greeks brought the Ellenico grapes to Italy where it gained its new name: Aglianico.

Vineyards near Campania
The Falernian wine made from these ancient Aglianico grapes, from the Faustus vineyard were the world’s first Premier Cru, and were reserved for the extremely wealthy and important members of Roman society. It was a wine of legend and heritage, written about by famous poets, philosophers, scholars, and historians. The grapes were harvested late in the season and had tremendous levels of sugar resulting in a sweet wine with very high alcohol content. The wine was left to oxidize for up to twenty years in clay amphorae vessels. The potent sugar and alcohol content of the wine made it age worthy and suitable for travel. The Roman legions carried Falernian throughout Europe and as far north as Britain. Pliny the Elder commented, “It is the only wine that takes light when a flame is applied to it.” He also described a particular banquet honoring Julius Caesar in 60 BCE where the famed “Opimian vintage of 121 BCE” was served. That vintage was an exclusive Falerian and was one of the finest wines ever created.

Aglianico grapes
Aglianico grapes are deep purple, hearty, and full of potent flavors. In Basilicata, they thrive in the volcanic soils of the extinct volcano, Mount Vulture, and on the hills near Taurasi in Campania. The commoners of Rome drank a crude red wine pressed from these grapes. The rustic, inky black wine was superior in tannins and in acidity. It had notes of smoky ash from the volcanic soils and bright red fruit from the abundant sunshine. The best Aglianico was more elegant than rustic and reserved for Roman aristocracy alone. Legend claims this is the wine offered to Jesus before his crucifixion and the same wine that Mary Magdalene dabbed to his lips as he was dying. We will never know.

What we do know is that this lovely little grape is still growing in these same vineyards in the southern most regions of Italy. Eighty years ago two winemaking families began to produce modern wines from Aglianico grapes grown on Mount Vulture vineyards. The two most prominent regions for Aglianico in Italy are in Campania, where it is known as Taurasi DOCG, and Basilicata, where it is known as Aglianico del Vulture DOC. Until very recently, Donato D’Angelo and Paternoster were the only two producers of Aglianico del Vultures available in the U.S. Feudi is a new leader in the Aglianico game. Now, Aglianico is springing up on wine lists and in wine boutiques across Denver.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of presenting three styles of the Aglianico grape to a budding group of wine aficionados.  I happened across an expression of the grape I’d never had the chance to try: bubbly! De Conciliis Selim Spumante is the first sparkling Aglianico from the Campania region of Italy.  Bruno De Conciliis harvests his grapes from vineyards in Paestum, near ancient Greek ruins. This beautiful, fresh, smoky wine blends Aglianico with Fiano grapes to produce a lush, lively wine with notes of orange blossom, tangy citrus and fleshy, succulent peaches. Named for a jazz great, Selim is an anagram for Miles, as in Miles Davis. Pair Selim with a fresh seafood salad or even with a late morning brunch.  Next in the lineup was Apollo Aglianico from the hillsides of Ponte Sannio, Campania.  This Aglianico has a more modern style made from hand harvested fruit that has been fermented in oak and stainless steel vats but it is finished for six months in oak barriques. It is unfiltered adding to its richness, blackberry juiciness and perfume of vanilla and blueberry jam.  Finally, we tasted the more traditional Terra di Vulcano Aglianico del Vulture, a classic representation of this inky, rustic, sultry grape.  Salvatore Pala first began making Aglianico in the 1950’s in Basilicata and this is one of his darlings. The project is still family owned, the grapes are hand harvested and fermented in oak and stainless steel, and although the winery uses modern technology, the wine is still a classic. This sensual wine is full bodied, with a nice balance of tannins and acidity.  It shows gorgeous smoky notes of black plums, black cherries, dried cocoa, violets, and rose petals. Aglianico loves food and is fantastic with rustic, wood fired pizza, smoked salmon, spicy cured meats or lean grilled meats. Share these wines with your friends and loved ones at your next late summer barbecue.  I am looking forward to sharing all three of these sexy wines with mon petit ami, Jerome, the very next chance I get! I am sure he will love Aglianico as much as I do.

Mount Vulture


Look for this trio of wonderful wines at Little’s Fine Wines, 2390 S. Downing St Denver, CO 80210; Mon-Thurs: 10am to 11pm Fri-Sat: 10am to 12am Sun: 12pm to 9ish pm; 303-744-3457.  Ask for Ashley.

photos courtesy of flicker, salentosolemarevento, and,

303 magazine: Chasing Grapes : For the love of Champagne

I find myself engaging in conversation about wine with people every day. In these conversations, I am often asked, “What is your favorite wine?” My answer is always the same…Champagne. Not just any sparkling wine: Champagne.  I have many other loves, but none thrill me like Champagne.  Yes, Barolo and Châteauneuf-du-Pape have tried to tempt me, Rioja and Burgundy seduce me, Priorat, Bordeaux and Brunello di Montalcino have all tried to steal my heart, but I am forever loyal to the one I love the most.  J’adore… je t’aime Champagne….

Since the first creation of Blanquette de Limoux in 1531AD by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire, near Carcassonne, sparkling wine is produced in many places and in many styles. Italy brings us the traditional Franciacorta, tangy, off-dry Prosecco and peaches & cream, fizzy, Moscato d’Asti. Prosecco is excellent for peach bellinis and Moscato is just excellent.  Spain delivers often bone dry, delicious Cava produced using indigenous Spanish grapes macabeu, parellada, xarel·lo, and more recently, pinot noir and chardonnay. Germany has Sekt, Portugal makes Espumante, sparkling wines are made in Hungary, Britain, Australia, and in the United States. I am happy to sip on any of these sparklers.  They are refreshing, light, fun, and they each have a unique style and personality. But, when it comes to pure, unadulterated BLISS, only one wine delivers.  Champagne.

Champagne is a complex wine from a tiny, equally complex region in northern France. The area, known as Champagne, has a sordid, brutal, aristocratic, and serious legacy.  Champagne has been a coveted wine region since 52 BC when Roman legions first cultivated grapes there and quarried the abundant limestone bedrock carving out the miles of crayères (caves) to build temples, buildings and roads.  These caves, discovered many centuries later, became the perfect storage facilities for caring for and aging the delicate wines of Champagne. During World War I & II, the men and women even lived in these caves for protection from the ravages of war. It is said, that there have been more battles on the lands of Champagne than on any other lands in the world.  Some of the grandest scale, deadliest battles have been waged in the vineyards from Attila the Hun, to the Hundred Years’ War, Prussian Wars, and World Wars.  Out of this lengthy history of devastation, comes a lovely, elegant, expression of the vines long devoted to the happiest celebrations of life.  The most important rites of passage like marriage, the births of babies, the coronations of kings and queens, holidays, the maiden voyage of a new yacht, and so many other joyous celebrations.  But, no other celebration calls for Champagne quite like the celebration of love.

Recently, mon petit ami Jerome and I celebrated such effervescent bliss with a bottle of my favorite of all Champagnes.  Perrier Jouët. This special wine is all about love.  The Perrier Jouët Champagne House was founded in 1811 by young newlywed lovers, Nicolas Perrier, the son of winegrower, Adèle Jouët, the daughter of a family of wine merchants. The couple invested in 65 hectares in Epernay and 40 additional hectares in Avize and Cramant, some of the most prestigious, Grand Cru vineyards in the region. (Pictured here) The House of Perrier Jouët still resides on these lands. The legendary love story of Nicolas and Adèle flourished until his death in 1854, at which time their son, Charles, took the helm of the business.  Perrier Jouët, like most Champagnes of the time, was a relatively sweet wine.  Charles created the very first, modern style, dry Champagne, revolutionizing the wine, the region and the industry.  Long associated with royalty and prestige, in 1888, Perrier-Jouët became the most expensive champagne in the world; with Perrier-Jouët 1874 breaking all price records at Christie’s, the world’s leading art auctioneer. The iconic, gorgeous, hand painted Perrier-Jouët bottle was first created by famed Art Deco painter Emile Gallé in 1902. The work of art was one of five prototype bottles misplaced in a crayère until it was mistakenly uncovered in 1964.  The white and green bouquet of anemones has become the symbol of the house, the symbol of excellence and a symbol of effervescent love.

Many a romantic and a poet agree with me and extoll the virtues of Champagne.  Legend has it that Dom Pérignon, a blind monk, upon tasting Champagne for the first time, exclaimed, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”  Coco Chanel said, “I only drink Champagne on two occasions, when I am in love, and when I am not.” Casanova felt Champagne was essential for seduction.  Marilyn Monroe was famous for bathing in Champagne. And, my favorite, Oscar Wilde, infamous for his provocation, “I can resist anything except temptation,” added “Only the truly unimaginative can fail to find a reason for drinking champagne.”

I can always find a reason to drink Perrier Jouët.  The Perrier Jouët Grand Brut, with its ultra-fine mousse, smoky, mineral notes with hints of lemon zest and peaches is thoroughly delightful, but the Cuveé Belle Époque Grand Fleur, the Cuveé Grand Fleur Blason Rosé, and the Cuveé Grand Fleur Blanc de Blanc are absolutely unbelievable. If I could only drink one wine for the rest of my life, it would be Belle Époque.  Belle Époque has a wonderful, feminine, delicate bouquet of ginger, freesia, gardenia, toasted almonds, and creaminess with a luminous mousse that plays on the tongue.  The chiffon pale pink Rosé adds faint strawberries, cinnamon and pink rose petals, while the Blanc de Blancs delivers a slight lime blossom, honeysuckle and lemon curd note to the beautiful, elegant, exquisite blend that is Perrier Jouët.

There is nothing more titillating than spending an afternoon with a perfectly chilled bottle of Belle Époque, a platter of freshly shucked, briny, succulent, oysters and mon petit ami Jerome….Effervescent Bliss!

*Perrier Jouët Grand Brut is affordable and can be found at most regional wine specialty stores.  Perrier Jouët Belle Époque Grand Fleur can be found at Applejack Wine & Spirits, Argonaut Wine & Spirits, Divino, City Wine, and Incredible Wine & Spirits and may be special ordered. Belle Époque Blason Rosé and Blanc de Blancs are trickier to find, but, on occasion, they may be special ordered.

Photos/info: Flickr by Gaetan Lee,

ORIGINAL ARTICLE:303 magazine: August 15, 2012:

Simone FM Spinner, CWS, CWE is a wine educator, sommelier, and passionate wine & food lover.  She is looking forward to Chasing Grapes and sharing her experiences with you-Salut!.