The modern comeback of Ancient Rome’s legendary wine: Falerno
If you think advertising & marketing for wine is a modern practice, you may want to think again.
Since the dawn of time, people have tried to attract new customers, and there’s probably no place in the world where this is more evident than the city of Pompeii; covered in volcanic ash for 1500 years, many details that would have been otherwise lost were preserved – notably, its many Roman-time graffiti.
One of these graffiti, advertising the prices of a Roman time “wine-bar”, says: “For one coin you can drink wine; for two, you can drink the best; for four, you can drink Falerno”.
But what is this Falernian wine (Falerno)? And why is it worth so much more than regular wine? Falerno wine was one of the best wines in Ancient Rome and, along with its prestigeous competitor Caecuban wine, the most celebrated by Roman writers, politicians and even Emperors.
The legendary origin of Falerno wine
Falerno wine was so highly priced that the Romans believed it was created by the God of wine himself: according to legend, Falerno was the name of an old man that lived in the Falerno wine Cru.
The divinity of wine Bacchus, during a trip, asked Falerno to host him, but he didn’t reveal his divine nature.
Bacchus was so moved by the hospitality and benevolence of the old man that he decided to give him a gift: when Falerno woke up in the morning he was sorrounded by amphorae full of the sweetest wine he had ever tasted, and the whole region was covered in beautiful, blooming vines. The divine wine would come to be named Falerno, after the name of the old man it was originally donated to.
Ager Falernus: the first wine Cru in the world
But where did this legendary wine come from? the production of Falerno wine was limited to a small region known at the time as Ager Falernus. This region lays in the north of Campania, Italy, specifically in a small area in the province of Caserta.
The Romans’ idea of wine regions was very similar to our modern concept of Cru; in this sense, Ager Falernus was probably the first wine Cru in the world. The Romans took Falerno wine very seriousely, and they invested a lot of time and effort in making it: they chose the best grapes, selected the best amphorae, and even specified the year when it was made, the area, and the name of the producer.
The Rise and fall of Falerno wine
As a testament to its popularity, Falerno makes its appearance in dozens of Roman time poems, books and anecdotes: emperor Marcus Aurelius mentioned this wine in his famous Meditations; according to Roman writer Pliny the Elder, Falerno wine was used to honor Julius Caesar for his conquest of Spain; famous Roman poets Catullus and Horace both celebrated this wine in their poems; it also appears in the latin work Satyricon, where Trimalchio serves a 100-years old Falerno during his dinner banquet.
With the end of the Roman Empire the production of Falerno continued, but it started to slowly decrease in both quantity and fame, until an epidemic destroyed the vineyards in the area once known as Ager Falernus, bringing this legendary winemaking region and its farmers down to their knees.
The Comeback of Falerno Wine
By the beginning of the 20th century, the production of Falerno had ceased for decades, and the fame of the winemaking region once known as Ager Falernus seemed destined to become only a memory: but the passion of a man was about to turn the destiny of Falerno on its head.
The man was called Francesco Paolo Avallone, a lawyer and professor of Roman law at the university of Naples, Italy. A very literate man, and particularly passionate about Ancient literature, he kept reading about this wine during his studies, and moved by his passion for history and by the love for his land, he set out to bring the legendary Falerno wine back to life.
With the help of a team of friends and professors from the university of Naples, Francesco Paolo Avallone started a research to interpret the ancient texts, aiming to identify the caratheristics of this wine and its terroir; matching the results with the local grapes they found researching the region, they identified the varieties best fit to recreate Falerno wine based on similarities with the results of their ampelogaphic studies.
The research took several years, and at the end of the ’60 Francesco Paolo Avallone was finally able to plant the first vineyard of the modern Falerno. He named the new born wine company Villa Matilde, after the name of his wife, who had supported him during all those years of research.
Falerno was born again, under the name of Falerno del Massico.
Villa Matilde: Falerno del Massico and beyond
Later on, Francesco Paolo Avallone’s pioneering work led to the creation of a Falerno del Massico DOP region, a protected geographical designation of origin for Falerno wines, and since then more producers have joined Villa Matilde in its effort to produce Falerno.
Today, Villa Matilde is led by Francesco Paolo Avallone’s sons Maria Ida and Salvatore Avallone; the new generation has guided Villa Matilde into the new millenium, evolving it into a modern wine company while also maintaining its original identity, and without ever losing sight of its mission: placing the legendary Ager Falernus back on the wine maps, and re-elevating it to the podium of acclaimed wine regions where it belongs.
Over the years, Villa Matilde extended its range of wines beyond Falerno to include other labels, but this family of winemakers never forgets where Villa Matilde comes from, and they continue to pay a tribute to the history of their land by relentlessly improving their most iconic wine.
Villa Matilde’s Falerno del Massico won some of the most prestigious accolades in Italy and beyond, including Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri and Bibenda’s Cinque Grappoli; recently, Villa Matilde’s white Falerno del Massico was listed by world renowned wine magazine Decanter as one of the “Dozen Dream Italian Whites”.
It is largely because of the vision of this family of winemakers that the myth of Falerno lives on – a vision guided by the desire to preserve the identity of their land, and the ambition to protect its most ancient traditions.
This guest post was written exclusively for Social Vignerons by Manuel Cirulli, creator of the Pasti Imperiali project.
Back Pasti Imperiali Crowdfunding
To learn more about this story have a look at out Kickstarter campaign “Pasti Imperiali – The Culinary legacy of Ancient Rome” – a photobook that features the stories of 12 among winemakers and farmers from our region that work to preserve out most ancient traditions. One chapter of the photobook is dedicated to Villa Matilde, including original behind-the-scene photographs and interviews with the winemakers.
You can back Manuel Ciruli’s photobook project via the KickStarter Campaign below: