Wine

Getting to Know the Tintore di Tramonti Grape

Sommelier Shelley Lindgren explores Campania’s long-forgotten variety

Campania Italy
Photo credit: Amalfi / iStock.

“Il vino delle vigne storiche è un miracolo.” (The wine of historic vineyards is a miracle.)

It goes without saying that old vines are valuable. But ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines? Even more so. So why is it that no one knows about Tintore di Tramonti?

For many years, I didn’t know about it, either. I first discovered Tintore di Tramonti when a lone case of Monte di Grazia Rosso arrived at my San Francisco restaurant, A16, in 2012 as an allocation in limited supply from the importer Giovanni Pagano.

This was just before Pagano launched Scuola di Vino Imports, after he’d been working as a sommelier in New York and San Francisco. Tramonti was familiar ground—Pagano grew up there. The owner of Monte di Grazia also happens to be Pagano’s family doctor and friend, Dr. Alfonso Arpino.

The wine list at A16 was dedicated to Southern Italy from the start. But a lot has changed since the restaurant first opened, in 2004. Back then, it was hard to find a Taurasi, an Etna Rosso, or a Southern Italian sparkling wine in the market. In the past 13 years, though, the availability of these wines has improved vastly, allowing me to dig deeper in these regions and find lesser-known wines—bottles that I might have missed altogether if my list were broader. The case of Tintore di Tramonti arrived at the perfect time.

Tramonti, a town near Positano and Ravello, south of Naples, is part of the Sorrentine Peninsula’s Lattari Mountains, so named for the milk roads the Romans built to source some of their best cheeses. It’s cooler here, and often breezy with maritime winds. This is Tintore di Tramonti’s homeland. At first taste, the wine is all earth and black plums with some grip. A few minutes later, flavors of lavender, fennel, and black licorice appear on the palate.

Tramonti is among certain places in Italy where ungrafted vines thrive. The theory is that phylloxera doesn’t like the pH levels of volcanic and some sandy soils, which enabled these vines to survive. Parcels of pre-phylloxera vines exist elsewhere in Campania, Calabria, and on Sicily’s Mount Etna. In Campania, as elsewhere, these old vines represent a living history. In the 20th century, indigenous grape varieties fell out of favor in Italy, and farmers might very easily have ripped out the little-known Tintore di Tramonti variety and replanted with something more marketable. Fortunately, at least in some places, they resisted.

The exact number of hectares of Tintore di Tramonti under vine is unknown because they’re scattered through the Lattari Valley. While the grape is an early-ripening variety, the pigments in the berry allow for the juice to be very dark, as the name suggests. The word tintore means “to tint.” The cooler coastal climate ensures that the grapes retain acidity while the wind keeps away botrytis, to which the variety is prone.

What’s also unusual about Tintore di Tramonti is that while winemakers use modern trellising for newer plantings, a good portion of the oldest vines grow on original rootstock from pre-phylloxera vines. If you’re paying attention while traveling along the Amalfi Coast, you’ll catch a glimpse of the sturdy, dense, ungrafted vines, some of which are more than a century old. Tintore di Tramonti is known for having a massive root network and is trained on a pergola system—pergola tramontina—that was created in the region centuries ago and is also widely used in the steep terraces of Amalfitana vineyards. (Amalfi winemaker Marisa Cuomo uses a pergola system for her terraced vineyards because she finds that it protects the grapes from the heat and fierce winds.)

When I visited Tramonti in 2014 with the importer Oliver McCrum, whose exclusive focus is Italian wines, he took me to the Reale winery, owned by Luigi Reale. It was my first sight these historic Tintore di Tramonti vines up close. Unlike old Aglianico vines, which grow tall and majestic like trees, these vines are gnarled and thick, trained overhead to about six feet—if that—over metal grates. With the steep slope of the hillside, the vines seem to grow against gravity and the strong winds that funnel from the sea to the hills. The resulting Reale wine is like Amarone—deep, inky, and earthy, with a depth of dried cherries.

Nearby, the Monte di Grazia estate comprises 6.7 hectares (16.5 acres), some of which sit at more than 500 meters in elevation. Here, Dr. Arpino grows local white varieties—Pepella, Ginestra, and Bianca Terra (another name for Biancolella, the classic grape of Ischia)—that are all good expressions of Campania whites. But it’s his Tintore di Tramonti that is truly unique, growing almost exclusively in the Lattari Valley. The bold color and pewter-like minerality give it a balance of fruit and earth. If Reale is Amarone, Monte di Grazia is left-bank Bordeaux.

Another producer, Tenuta San Francesco, is also working to ensure that these old vines survive. Run by the Bove, Giordano, and d’Avino families, Tenuta San Francesco has about 10 hectares (25 acres) under vine, and its craggy, steep hillsides make for heroic viticulture. It was Gaetano Bove who helped me see that these ancient vineyards can almost be viewed as a museum—some of the estate’s Tintore di Tramonti vines have been around for 120 years. The wines from these vines have terroir-driven flavors of gunflint, fennel, black plum, maraschino cherry, and fig.

It can be hard to find bottles of pure varietal Tintore di Tramonti, even in Campania. When blended with Piedirosso, it becomes a smooth, light, and food-friendly wine, with Piedirosso bringing acidity and bright red fruit. But the most striking versions are made purely of Tintore.

At A16, we are fortunate to have as many as three Tintore di Tramonti wines on our list. But as more bottles made with this rare grape become available in the United States, we’ll be given an opportunity to tell its story and share living history. And that’s part of what we do as wine professionals—we bridge the gap between these wines and the marketplace. I’m lucky that Southern Italy, with its centuries-old viticultural history, still offers the possibility to find new-to-me grapes with great potential for quality wine production. Tintore di Tramonti is one of the best examples of this rich past.

Shelley Lindgren is the co-owner and wine director of San Francisco’s A16 and SPQR restaurants.

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