The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
If you find yourself in one of those in-vogue establishments specializing in wood-fired "authentic Neapolitan pizza," do yourself a favour and resist the impulse to order Chianti, Valpolicella or pinot grigio. Pretend you're actually in Naples and ask for falanghina. It's one of the best things to happen to simple Italian flatbread since European explorers sailed home from Mesoamerica with a curiosity called the tomato.
The signature white wine of Italy's southern Campania region, which encompasses Naples, is light, crisp and delicately fruity and floral, an eye-opening match for pizza margherita, the classic pie topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. It's also a fittingly understated complement to seafood on the grill, like squid drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and hot chilies. I love it with battered, deep fried calamari doused with lemon juice on a bed of peppery arugula. And, to be perfectly frank, part of its appeal for me is the word itself -- fallan-GHEE-nah, with a hard "g" – because it sounds more exotic than "pinot grigio," the English term for "I don't know much about Italian white wine."
Maybe falanghina has been off your radar. It was off almost everybody's radar until the 1970s, when locals revived the ancient vine from near-extinction. Chief among them was Francesco Paolo Avallone, a lawyer and history buff who, in the 1960s, founded Villa Matilde on the slopes of an extinct volcano, Roccamonfina.
Avallone had become obsessed with recreating an ancient Roman white wine called Falernum, famously poured for Julius Caesar and mentioned by the likes of Pliny the Elder and the poet Horace. Some believe the elixir, basically the Château Lafite of its day, contained at least some falanghina mainly because the grape today also goes by the synonym uva falerna. But I think it's fair to say nobody knows for sure. What we do know, thanks to genetic profiling, is that there are two distinct falanghina varieties, flegrea and beneventana. The former arguably makes better, more perfumed wines.
In any case, falernum was prized for its sweetness and ability to age beneficially as it oxidized in the southern Italian heat, not unlike Portuguese Madeira. The best falanghinas today could not be more unlike that ancient wine than the historical Caesar from romaine lettuce dressed with garlic, croutons, lemon and parmesan. Dry and lively, it delivers oilier weight than, say, pinot grigio, often with flavours suggesting apricot, orange, nectarine and herbs. It may not be as complex, or at least as rich, as Campania's more esteemed white, fiano, but falanghina represents good value, generally priced in the $14 to $20 range.
The wine comes and goes in small quantities across Canada, much of it scooped up by those trendy Neapolitan-style pizzerias. Producers to seek out include Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Quintodecimo and Vesevo. If you can't find any, buy a plane ticket to Naples, and don't leave without trying the pizza.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.