In the crater of an extinct volcano, believed by the Romans to be the gate of the Underworld, ancient grapevines are producing unique wines.
“The Mediterranean is a strange sea, inspiring sailors to turn into farmers and vice versa” says the sailing boat skipper turned winemaker Emilio Mirabella, and indeed his vineyard looks like it’s sitting on the banks of a small Mediterranean sea: Lake Avernus, a volcanic lake enclosed in a crater littered with ruins of Roman temples.
Where in ancient times deadly fumes inspired the belief that here was a gate to the Underworld, now three vineyards produce the prized Campi Flegrei DOC wines, mainly the red Piedirosso and the white Falanghina.
All three winemakers can proudly sport the appellation “Historical Vineyard” on their brands, since they were established in the first half of the 19th century, but they are driven by more than narcissism: many of their plants are as old as the orchard, and still producing. They escaped the great “Phylloxera Plague” which almost wiped out wine production in Europe in the 1860’s.
In Southern Italy it happened at the same time of the conquest from the Northern Kingdom of Sardinia and during the repression of “brigandage,” the armed revolt against it. Since wine was one of the most prized agricultural crops, the devastation brought by phylloxera to the vineyards helped to spark massive emigration, primarily to United States.
The area east of Naples known as the Phlegrean Fields (“Ardent Fields”), though, was not badly affected.
“Phylloxera struck here too, these places were not spared” Emilio Mirabella tells, while sipping a glass of red on his porch, facing the lake “but damage was not important, the Phlegrean Fields is a volcanic caldera. The soil here is dry and sandy, very rich in sulphur, so larvae could not affect many plants”
This is especially true inside of the Avernus crater, where at times mysterious bubbling of the lake kill scores of fishes.
Emilio points to the hill on the left “This side of the vineyard is not actually part of the Avernus crater: it’s the ‘Monte Nuovo,’ the new mountain. A brand new volcano, sprouted in just one month in 1538. Less than 4 km away, there is Solfatara, another still active volcano with fumaroles and hot sulphuric water springs. No wonder poor phylloxera stays away from our vineyards!” he jokes.
The vineyards are enclosed into one side of the crater, the one facing South West, while most of the other side is occupied by the lake. The edge of the crater is terraced, where most of the young plants are. But many of the grapevines are as old as the vineyard. Emilio shows an ancient photo dated 1841 with rows of plants clearly visible.
Historically, the area was neglected and uninhabited to the point that, in the 16th century, land was given to Jews fleeing from Spain. “After the ‘Phylloxera Plague’, the economy here boomed. It was one of the few places in Italy still producing wines.” Many luxurious villas in the area date to that time. The then recently established vineyard in the Avernus crater became a prized estate, owned by rich families living elsewhere.
“I come from a family of sharecroppers. We worked the land, we lived here, we made the wine, but the owners seldom came to see the place.” As a kid, Emilio often swam in the lake and was startled by its depth seen through the clear waters. Then he left for the sea.
“I have been a sailing yacht skipper for years, mainly in the Mediterranean Sea.” Historically, Mediterranean people were never only fishermen, or only farmers: they lived between land and sea, neither of the two resources being rich or reliable enough for subsistence.
Emilio kept the tradition alive, cooking for his passengers the traditional recipes from his farming region on his chartered sail boat.
Then one day, something changed his life.
“My father called me. He told me that the owners had informed him of their intentions to sell the vineyard. He was old already. He didn’t feel like abandoning the place we were so fond of, so he asked me if I could help him…”
He was newly married, and his wife had sea sickness.
“I sold the boat, and bought the vineyard”, he recalls, but his eyes look at the sea, beyond the ridge of the crater. “I missed this place so much, now I’m here with my wife making our wines and I wonder about the sea…”
Umberto Guardascione is Emilio’s neighbor.
He has a very similar story, but when his father called him to ask if he felt like coming back to farm the land, he was working as an electronic technician. He accepted with enthusiasm. His family’s portion of the vineyard almost overlaps with Emilio’s one, and their houses are also close. They are good neighbors, even sharing tools and machines.
He has no regrets. “I’m happy when I make wine. My father was very experienced, and I started very young, before leaving the fields for school. So I have learned a lot”. He shows proudly the many improvements he is achieving on his farm: in spite of the Italian bureaucracy’s quicksand, he’s getting all the licenses for offering banqueting with his food products.
His part of the vineyard is the oldest one “We have been visited by the Regional authority recently, they counted more than 1,900 historical plants, the average is 150 years old”
That is only possible because the grapevines have never been grafted. To fight phylloxera, which attacks the roots, plants are grafted on American rootstocks which are resistant to the disease. Obviously grafting weakens the plant, but this is not the case with the Avernus grapevines.
Another third of the vineyard is owned by Mariano Mirabella, Emilio’s cousin, and it’s also a historical orchard.
The wines produced here are the varietal “Piedirosso” and “Falanghina”. Both have gained the prized D.O.C. “Denominazione di Origine Controllata” quality assurance classification. Other older, less known wines are also produced in small quantities, namely “Palombina,” “Zagarese,” “Calabrese” and “Nerella dei Campi Flegrei”. Though their commercial impact is negligible, they are important for genetic variety and the preservation of diversities.
The “Piedirosso” (literally “red foot” for the color of the ripe peduncule) is ruby red, with crimson reflections, 12.5% alcohol, from red grapes, ungrafted on epaliers. It’s harvested manually in the first ten days of October, pressed softly and fermented in steel at controlled temperature, 22°C. It is then decanted to oak barrels, before being bottled and rest for one or two months.
The “Falanghina” looks straw yellow, bright, crystal clear, also 12.5% alcohol, from white grapes, ungrafted on guyot. It’s also harvested manually, but from the second ten days of September, pressed softly and
fermented in steel at controlled temperature of 15°C. Like the red “Piedirosso,” it is decanted in oak barrels and rest for one or two months in bottles.
Emilio Mirabella’s vineyard has its own bottling brand, “Cantine dell’Averno,” and he buys grapes from the other two vineyards too. Traditionally, locals come to the lake to buy unbottled wine.
The lake is indeed very important for the region. Decades of urbanization have changed the area into a crowded suburb, in spite of its incredible touristic potential. The crater has remained an oasis of green and peace and the recent inclusion into a Regional Park will ensure its protection. Production of traditional food and wine adds to the archaeological and cultural interest.
The Latin poet Virgil, in his “Aeneid,” set Lake Avernus as the background of the Hero’s voyage to the underworld after meeting the Sybil. The Sybil was an oracle, believed to prophesize after being intoxicated with volcanic fumes.
Her cave is still on a side of the lake. Just outside of the crater, between the modern towns of Bacoli and Pozzuoli, the shore sank into the sea: now the entire Roman harbor city of Baiae is submerged, as an underwater Pompeii visible to divers and snorkelers. The Castle of Baiae hosts a museum with the many statues and artifacts found underwater. Not far, the Solfatara is the only active volcano hosting a camping site inside of its crater, and on the lake Fusaro, the Royal Casina pavilion was the place where the Kings of Naples took shelter for their romantic escapades.
While Umberto works on banqueting, Emilio is already offering food, cooked by him and his wife Gisa, for parties in his vineyards: his cooking skills from the sailing boat times and his land’s fresh products delight his guests. He’s getting licenses to be able to offer accommodation. To wake up in such a peaceful place, still in the middle of a touristic area and only a few kilometres from Naples and the airport, is amazing.
The traditional allure of the place is a pretext to host reenactments of ancient “vendemmia”, or vintage: a harvest with folk music and dances.
“We were not raised to be farmers” Emilio mumbles. “Farmers were supposed to live poor, uncertain lives. But farming has become more than a lifestyle, now. It’s a way to keep the land alive, connected with the surroundings, and preserving it from urbanization and the loss of traditional heritage”.
The sun is setting over the edge of the crater, but there is no twilight. It’s dark inside, as the sun sets outside. Emilio smiles “This is the hour that Homer wrote of, when he mentioned the ‘wine-colored sea,’ my favorite!”
Then he suddenly frowns, like being reminded of something: “The sea…”
A version of this article was published in French on “L’Edition du Soir”