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Imagine the most extraordinary location for a vineyard that you can. Got an image in mind? Well, we think Cantine dell’Averno, a four-hectare vineyard in Pozzuoli, has it beat: Not only are its vines growing inside the caldera of a volcano that is theoretically still active, but they also surround the ruins of a Roman temple.

We are on the shores of Lake Avernus, a volcanic lake that formed thousands of years ago and is part of the wider Campanian volcanic arc, which includes the Phlegraean Fields. It’s a place shrouded in an aura of mystery – legends and tales about this somewhat eerie body of water have been passed down since antiquity. Virgil, in his epic poem the Aeneid, places the mystical entrance to the underworld in the caldera of Lago d’Averno, through which his hero Aeneas passes to reach hell.

When taken together, these unique archaeological, environmental and mythological contexts make Cantine dell’Averno one of the most beautiful vineyards in southern Italy. Planted in the early 19th century, the vineyard, which produces exceptional wines, has been cared for by five generations of the Mirabella family.

Today 60-year-old winemaker Nicola Mirabella and his wife, Giovanna Filogamo, 50 years old, are showing us around the property. Together with Nicola’s brother, Emilio, they are the caretakers of these vines, from which they harvest grapes to make Campi Flegrei DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata, or “controlled designation of origin”) wines.

Neapolitans have long known that the region’s volcanic soil – Naples sits right between two powerfully active volcanoes – is very fertile. This rare earth is particularly suited to the production of high-quality grapes.

“Our ancestors planted vines on these terraces, to make the most of the natural inclination of the volcano,” Nicola says. While this placement of the vines ensures that they can reap the benefits of the volcanic soil, it means that caring for the vines and harvesting the grapes “cannot be mechanized in any way.” Everything, from pruning to the harvest, “is carried out meticulously by hand,” he adds.

“And here it is all organic,” adds Giovanna, his wife. “We completely avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides.” They grow two varieties of grapes, both native to the Phlegraean Fields: falanghina (an ancient white variety that pairs perfectly with a good fish dish) and piedirosso (a red grape also called per‘ ‘e palummo in Neapolitan, or pigeon’s leg, which the stem resembles during maturation, when it turns a red color).

The Mirabella family has been cultivating these vines for two centuries. “My grandparents worked this land for the Duke of Casoli, who owned it at the time. Back then the grapes were sold to other wineries. Then in 1998, we managed to buy the land and finally decided to make our own wine,” Nicola says.

“Our ancestors planted vines on these terraces, to make the most of the natural inclination of the volcano,” Nicola says.

“We are a winery with small numbers, aimed solely at producing quality wines and above all using only the native varieties of the Phlegraean Fields: piedirosso and falanghina,” he continues. “Today we produce only about 20,000 bottles a year, but only using grapes from our vineyards, vinified in purity.”

More than just a winery, Cantine dell’Averno is also an agritourismo, with two very simple guest rooms that look out onto Lake Avernus and a restaurant for those who love to eat good food, obviously accompanied by wine from the cellar. The menu is simple and traditional; only local foods from small producers are used.

It sounds like an idyllic set up, a fairy tail from another era, but this small vineyard is feeling the heat of climate change.

“The last few years we have witnessed a sort of climate tropicalization in the south of Italy,” Nicola says. “For decades we have had a constant climate during grape ripening. Now, instead, each vintage is a speech in itself: a very dry year, a rainy year. This year it has not rained all summer.”

The other consequence of climate change is the increase of sudden heavy rains or, worse still, hailstorms that destroy a large part of the harvest. “Last year it rained hailstones as big as oranges,” Nicola says, using both hands to show us the size of these massive hailstones. Fortunately the storm ended almost as soon as it began, so “much of the harvest was saved.”

It looks as if climate change is beginning to affect wine production in the Phlegraean Fields. Yet they are also facing more run-of-the-mill challenges at Cantine dell’Averno: “Doves, magpies and crows have been eating all the upper part of the vineyard,” says Nicola. “We are thinking of new ways of protecting the vines, like nets.”

Yet Nicola and Giovanna’s daughters, Antonia, 24, and Gabriella, 20, are on the case – the older studies agricultural technology at the University of Naples. They are the future of the winery, and we hope they’re able to find technological solutions to protect the vine.

But, in the end, the vineyard never belongs to us. It belongs to itself, to mother nature. The various owners are just temporary custodians and curators, hoping to keep the vines going for the next generation.

Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of fall, we’re running a series focused on the grape harvest and winemaking.

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Published on October 15, 2019

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