Alberto Verde is a 42-year-old man with an indomitable spirit, proudly Campanian, who, in arguing the reasons for his unconditional love for the Campania, goes so far as to quote the French philosopher Régis Debray, who in his latest book (Against Venice, published a few months ago) defines Naples as «vitality incarnate. […] The least narcissistic city there is, the only one in Europe where the myth is encountered in the street, where the past is lived in the present».
From this love and a deep knowledge of the territory, an ambitious project was born for the rediscovery and enhancement of Asprinio, a native vine of Aversano with a unique story, which is intertwined with that of Anjou but also with that of champagne and Greco di Tufo and which testifies to the profound transformations (not always positive) experienced by the Campania region over the course of history. With its cellar, Drengot – in homage to the Norman count Rainulf Drengot, who founded Aversa in 1030 – today Alberto produces three excellent wines, based on Asprinio from the family’s over one hundred year old vineyards.
We met him before the summer break and asked him to tell us more about Drengot and his vision.
You started from a family vineyard with a long history, bringing about a small revolution in the territory of Cesa and around it. Can you tell us how your project was born and why did you choose to work only with Asprinio?
To tell how we got to Drengot I want to make a premise, which is important to me, regarding the territory in which we find ourselves.
The province of Caserta is one of the best in Italy for viticulture because it is extremely fertile – we are in the heart of what the ancients called Campania Felix – but its fertility has meant that, especially from the post-war period onwards, we focus on intensive cultivation, to make the most of the richness of the territory. Also because the food products of Caserta have no equal in Italy from a qualitative point of view and, therefore, have always been in great demand. I am not saying this out of partisanship, it is reality and it is demonstrated by the fact that even today most of the country’s agri-food industry comes here to buy raw materials and products and then resell them with their own label. What is the limit of this system, though? That this area, special from an agronomic point of view, very rich in biodiversity and with a long agri-food tradition, has become, over time, a land of contractors at the service of all companies in the country.
It was the fate of many areas of Southern Italy, following the economic boom and the parallel loss of the agricultural vocation of these areas. However, it seems that things are slowly changing, even if it will take time to see the results.
Yes, that’s right, the new generation agricultural entrepreneurs are trying to do a different job. For example, here in Aversano there are many farms that operate in organic farming and, above all, many companies are making their way that have chosen to enter large-scale distribution with their own brand and with a supporting positioning and communication strategy. We are trying to get out of the subcontractor logic to regain possession of our identity, also to be able to give the right value – economic and cultural – to our products, which are really of the highest quality, be it fruit, vegetables, wine or cheese. .
The most difficult thing is to reverse the perspective and remove all those prejudices that have accumulated over time and which, in most cases, are the result of a bad story of our lands and our history.
With Drengot you are trying to make your own contribution in wine terms, giving a new life to native varieties such as Asprinio. It seems that your project is animated by a certain fighting spirit.
Absolutely yes. When I started thinking about creating a project on the family lands, I didn’t have in mind to make wine but I was sure I wanted something to give back to this territory what it deserves, with a mixture of pride and a sense of redemption, for all that has been taken from us and the opportunities that have not been given to us.
The choice of Asprinio came along the way, there were two small but decisive episodes. The first was a long chat with a wine producer from Veneto, for which Asprinio is one of the best whites in Italy. For me it was a kind of enlightenment, which led me to reflect a lot, also because my family has always raised Asprinio, at least since 1800, but surely we could go even further back, wanting to do some research. And I myself grew up in the middle of the vineyards, together with my cousins I spent all my summers as a child and little boy there. So, after this meeting, I took a tour of my grandfather’s old cellar and the vineyards and so I decided, immediately imagining it as a long-term project, at twenty – but also thirty – years old. I wanted to build something that could last over time and that really gave value to this land.
Asprinio has characteristics that make it unique in the Italian wine scene. Can you tell us something more?
First of all we must say that it is a vine that has been bred here since ancient times and that defining territorial is little, because it grows only here and when I say “here” I mean the fifteen municipalities of Aversano, because if you already try to move the Asprinio of a few kilometers, let’s say in Caserta, no longer grows.
And let me also do a little historical excursus: in the eighteenth century, due to a pandemic in Naples and its surroundings, a local noble decided to move and isolate himself – we certainly did not invent the lockdown – in the castle of Tufo, bringing with him, among the various assets, including some Asprinio vines to be planted in the surrounding land. Now, one of the characteristics of this variety is that it develops in height, reaching and exceeding 15 meters, but in Tufo the vines were unable to grow and over time took on another physiognomy and other characteristics: the Greco di Tufo was born from evolution of those first Asprinio vines.
And it is precisely from the extraordinary height I was talking about that derives the peculiar structure of the Aversane trees: the vines of Asprinio grow intertwined – or “married” as we say – to the poplars that are used as supports, while the shoots are twisted with cables of galvanized iron, almost creating vegetable walls. It is another of those wonders that are only found here, so much so that the tree-lined has been recognized as an intangible heritage of the Campania Region.
Legend says that Asprinio was the first sparkling wine in history. How much is it true?
It’s all true! Simply because Asprinio has an acidity of ten tenths. There is no other grape that reaches these levels, so it can be said that a naturally sparkling wine is born from Asprinio. It is a natural sparkling wine in fact and when we say that the bubbles were born here, we say it because at the court of the Anjou only Asprinio was drunk, precisely because it was sparkling. All this is documented.
The first official document in which Asprinio is mentioned is dated 1495 and is a private agreement between a landowner and his settler but, as I told you, it has always been bred in aversano.
It is incredible how such a special wine has been so little valued, almost forgotten. I think it is a dynamic also connected to the contracting you were talking about earlier.
Yes, of course. In reality, at the local level we have never stopped consuming Asprinio but let’s say that it has always been the classic wine to be sold in bulk or to be produced and destined for private use and this because from the second post-war period up to the 1990s the bulk of production was destined for winery of Vecchia Romagna, which paid very well for the grapes for two uses: the grapes were used to obtain a sparkling base to be sold to French producers of champagne; with the marc, on the other hand, the famous brandy was obtained. So, for decades – until the closure of this winery – it was no longer profitable to produce one of our wines.
As for our farm, on the death of my grandfather (in 1990), my father took over its management, dedicating himself above all to the vineyard which is ancient, all our plants are about 200 years old.
Drengot in its current physiognomy when it was born, then?
The first two vintages were 2015 and 2016, but in fact they were tests, we never thought of marketing them. In 2017 I rethought the whole structure, with a new working group that works very well and, thus, we arrived at a convincing formula: the launch on the wine market took place in 2018 and that of sparkling wine in 2019.
I had an “ultra-territorial” product in mind, working only and exclusively with Asprinio, for all the reasons I have already told you, and I wanted it to be a high quality product that would finally do justice to the great potential of this grape. I wanted to demonstrate, first of all to my countrymen, that that wine, which here traditionally called “the vinello”, could be an excellent wine, very pleasant and with good evolutionary potential. A high-end wine.
I chose the name Drengot to immediately declare the link with the territory. While our three references have names connected to local history: Terramasca means volcanic land, therefore it refers to the character of our lands, Scalillo is a tribute to the scale we use during the harvest and which has a particular tapered shape to allow manual harvesting on our alberate and, finally, Asprinium to fully celebrate our variety, with a reference to the Latin world, therefore to our roots.
Terramasca is your flagship reference, I would define it as a “noble” Charmat method because it matures for a year in steel, ages for eighteen months on the lees, then rests in the bottle for at least another six months. Considering, however, the naturally sparkling character of Asprinio, it comes naturally to me to ask you if you plan to produce a classic method as well.
In reality we are already working on it and I can tell you that, in the near future, Terramasca will be exclusively a classic method, I cannot be more precise because we want to take all the time we need to get a perfect bubble, which fully satisfies us. This grape deserves it!
Certainly, Terramasca will remain our excellence, but we will not completely abandon the Charmat. We will use it, in fact, for a new reference that is a little younger and no longer vintage and therefore more accessible in price. For me it is important, at this moment, to get the Asprinio to a wide audience, without of course lowering the quality.
Your project is showing how far Asprinio can go. What impact has your approach had at the local level? How was it received?
What I brought here was above all a positive mentality: the product was there but was little considered, by us first. And for this reason, despite all the peculiarities of Asprinio, the wine has always been of low quality; what I chose to do, on the other hand, was to ennoble it to the maximum, setting up a high-level work group and showing everyone all the potential we have. And, in doing so, I positively surprised consumers but also other agricultural entrepreneurs. Let’s say that I managed to stir things up.
For me, personally, Drengot goes beyond business opportunities, it is a project that mainly concerns the territory in its entirety: I started from Asprinio to give new value to everything we have here. But I admit that there is a lot to do and that they are only at the beginning, with the complication that we find ourselves having to do the work of a consortium, which is not here.
I understand, also because to carry out certain discourses, institutions are needed and a vision of territorial marketing is also needed, which can only be entrusted to a single individual.
I must say that the Pro Loco here are doing a great support job. The inclusion of Asprinio among the Campanian intangible assets is due to their commitment. It is a very important recognition, not only on a symbolic level but also because it binds everyone to the protection of the vines and to a care of the territory that was not there before. The next step was also recently taken to obtain recognition by UNESCO.
There is starting to be a certain movement and a certain attention that was previously lacking and that concerns the Asprinio but also all our local products. I see, for example, an overall renaissance of the wine of Caserta, here there is a very long and precious tradition: we have many reds and many whites from splendid native grapes, they are little known but are finding new vigor, like Casavecchia, which is really optimal. It is good because, with time and work, a virtuous circle can be created for the whole territory.
As for me, I am very optimistic because I strongly believe in the quality of my product, I know that the history of Asprinio has a charm all its own and I am very determined to contribute to the rebirth of my land. It is only about giving time to time and working with tenacity.
– Editorial Board 7.09.2021