Sorrento & the Amalfi coast


The wine scene south of Naples is all about defying the odds. They’ve got vines planted on the sides of volcanoes, vines perched on terraces, vines clinging to rocky outcroppings. Not many rolling slopes here, just steep pitches and sharp turns. The local grapes have weird names like falanghina, coda di volpe (so named by the great Roman agricultural writer Pliny the Elder, it literally means “tail of the fox,” apparently in reference to the shape of the grape clusters), and piedirosso (“red feet,” in reference to the vine’s characteristically reddish root base). And to be perfectly frank, the wines of Sorrento and Amalfi are a pretty weird bunch. In the past these wines, particularly the whites, were best drunk right on the spot, where their freshness and brightness wasn’t sacrificed to a long sea journey. It also helped that the setting was usually so strikingly beautiful that you really didn’t care much what you were drinking alongside your linguine with clams, so long as it was cold and abundant.

Should you find yourself in one of the picturesque villages of Amalfi — Ravello, maybe — there’s no doubt that you will fall in love with the local whites, most of which are blends based on the falanghina grape. We at Babbo are big fans of the whites from Marisa Cuomo, probably the biggest and best name in Amalfi Coast wine, although again I’ll say that your best experiences with Amalfi whites will be in Amalfi itself.

At the moment, my sentimental favorites in the wacky world of Sorrento and Amalfi wine are those labeled Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio. That’s right, the “tears of Christ from Vesuvio.” Lacryma Christi wines are made in white, red and rosé versions, and to me they conjure images of the salad days of Italian-American restaurants, with their red-and-white checkered tablecloths, shakers filled with red chili flakes, and posters of the Napoli soccer team on the wall.

I’ve heard lots of legends about the origins of the name Lacryma Christ and how it was applied to the wines/vineyards of Mount Vesuvius. But rather than try to enumerate them all here, I’ll share with you a paragraph from one of the best wine books ever written, Burton Andersons out-of-print “Vino,” which lays out the Lacryma Christi myth better than I ever could:

“The popular version,” Anderson writes, “is that the Archangel Lucifer, cast from heaven, desperately grabbed a piece of it with his fingernails as he fell and placed it on earth as the Gulf of Naples and environs. Noticing the loss, the Lord wept, and where each of his tears fell the first vines grew on earth.”

That’s some heavy stuff, and while I’m not promising anything heavenly when you try the wines of Vesuvius, I think it is fascinating that we can drink wines from grapes once cultivated by the Romans. Grapes such as coda di volpe and falanghina (the heart of the Lacryma Christi white blend) and piedirosso (the star of the red version) are ancient artifacts, and yet they typically cost all of $30 a bottle in a restaurant. Moreover, they’re actually good wines — the whites citrusy, flinty, and delicately aromatic, the reds hearty and tangy and possessed of the kind of spiciness you might expect from grapes grown in volcanic ash.

Along with the pioneering Mastroberardino estate, which remains the leading force in Campanian wine, there are a number of excellent producers of Lacryma Christi whites and reds, including DeAngelis and Sessa, both of whom have been featured on the Babbo wine list. Look out for them under the “Campania” heading on our wine list, and taste a little bottled history.