The Amalfi Coast, the paradox of the terroir

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The Amalfi Coast is a World Heritage Site.   It is an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape, one of exceptional cultural and natural value and a rare example of a place where the human hand has embellished nature. The Amalfi Coast is also a landscape fit for great wines.

View of Campania, in the Amalfi Coast (Italy)View of Campania, in the Amalfi Coast (Italy)

The Amalfi Coast is a World Heritage Site.   It is an outstanding example of a Mediterranean landscape, one of exceptional cultural and natural value and a rare example of a place where the human hand has embellished nature. The Amalfi Coast is also a landscape fit for great wines.

Bacchus amat colles, said Virgil, i.e. wine loves the hills.  Few places are as steep as the Amalfi Coast, with terraces on all potential exposures. These ancient terraces transcend the work of those who created them and have become the image of beauty.  The soils are mainly limestone, although in Tramonti they are sometimes covered with old lava from Vesuvius. Poor, well exposed soils, which are only valuable when, upon them, grow the wood of fruit trees and vines and not the grass of cereals. Wine soil!

La Costiera is an island on two counts.  First, due to the sea coast giving it its typical Mediterranean climate and character, and secondly due to the Lattari Mountains, which separate it climatically and culturally from the Neapolitan countryside.  The rugged terrain creates a considerable variety of microclimates, depending on the orientation of the slopes and the altitude, which goes from sea level to 600 metres in a very short distance.

There is an age-old tradition of growing vines here, with varieties imported from the rest of Campania, such as Falanghina and Aglianico, or vines which are native and almost unique to this area, with names that trip nicely off the tongue: Per’ e' Palummo, Sciascinoso, Serpentaria, Ripolo, Tronto, Ginestra, Fenile, Pepella, Biancazita, Biancotenera, San Nicola, Tintore.

The vines are a marvel. Phylloxera never reached many of the vineyards, where there are impressive vines which have spanned the centuries and whose roots have colonized large tracts of land, rambling and wrinkled like beautiful old witches, tall and generous like great ladies.

Add to this, breathtaking beauty, and you have everything you need for the production of fine wines.  But there is little wine produced in Costiera, less than 2,000 hl per year, and very little of it is fine.  The reasons for this lack of wine are all human and the story is worth relating:

At the end of the first millennium there were four maritime republics, centres of maritime power and homes to vast fleets: Venice, Genoa, Pisa and Amalfi. The sailors’ health was important to their power and about 300 years before the rest of the world, the Republic of Amalfi knew that scurvy was prevented by the consumption of its delicious lemons. So, back in the 11th century, they decreed that the many terraces in the area should be used for growing citrus fruit.  The vine gave way to the lemon tree.   Their delectable lemons become so appreciated that, by 1800, the lemons from Minori were being exported throughout Europe.  Later, from the zest of these lemons (which you only have to smell to understand why), they began to make the famous limoncello. The coast was the paradise of the lemon for centuries.

But that benefit did not bring wealth.  After losing its independence, the Amalfi Coast became a second rate region, one which the Italian State did not even consider worthy of being a province.  To add insult to injury, the powers-that-be did not prevent the sale, under the “Amalfi” name, of many other inferior quality lemons, or prevent the image of limoncello from being cheapened by substandard versions produced​​ elsewhere.

Tenuta San FrancescoThe result of this neglect was poverty, a condition incompatible with fine wine.  Wine of mediocre quality, often mixed with bulk wines from Puglia or the Neapolitan countryside, was produced for local consumption. The upside of this story is that the old vines survived the twentieth century because there was no alternative use for the land.

La Costa had always been a magnet for the intellectual elite, but the postwar period brought with it mass tourism, both salvation and a new curse for the region.  It brought salvation as it generated economic activity.  It was a curse because it conditioned Amalfi society to be at the service of its visitors.  Investment went into hotels and marinas instead of encouraging local production. While the terrace walls were crumbling and pittances were being paid for local products, local mayors were more concerned with privatizing beaches or supporting shops selling counterfeit goods.

The result can be seen today, with hundreds of abandoned terraces slowly falling apart with the local authorities doing nothing to prevent it.  And there is very little fine wine, with only one big producer and a small (but growing) number of good winemakers.  The largest producer is Marisa Cuomo, in Furore, whose wines exist today because the family fought the powers-that-be to defend its name and heritage. The Furore Rosso is known throughout Italy, and its Fiorduva is absolutely outstanding.

Ravello is the best known sub-zone, with several quality wineries, some managed by the luxury hotels in the village. Marisa Cuomo has a Ravello Riserva worth mentioning and Sammarco produces some clean, typical wines. The wines of La Terra delle Sirene (what a beautiful name) in Tramonti, will be very good someday.  The people at San Francesco know this, as they are already producing some lovely wines.  The original wines from Apicella are more popular and for drinking within the year.  Tramonti is also the village said to have the best pizzaioli - what better combination than good wine and good pizza?

The Costiera is gradually finding its soul again, there are people who are re-learning its products, recovering old vines, rediscovering its land, and loving it for what it is, rather than for being a place of relaxation for others. The authentic Amalfi Coast, that of the maritime republic that once was, that of villages and terraces, lemons and grapes.   I hope we will soon witness a full renaissance.

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