Falanghina, the grape that produced the Roman’s favourite tipple, has been reborn as a full and fruity white.
The wine trade seems to struggle with the concept of ‘newness’. Mystifyingly, and uniquely, it still presents its wares as Old World or New World, when words like ‘European’ or ‘Australian’ would suffice. And now, along comes Falanghina, which is often billed as Italy’s ‘new’ white grape variety but is, in fact, as old as the hills of Campania where it comes from.
Forget the Old World, Falanghina made the most famous wine in the ancient world. It tasted nothing like it does today, but in its modern guise, it provides a fruity, full-flavoured alternative to the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio. (Incidentally, Falanghina is pronounced with a hard ‘g’, as in ‘fragrant’, unlike the second ‘g’ in Grigio, which is appropriately soft and insipid.)
The history of Falanghina
Back in the day, when Nero and Caligula hosted the original ‘bunga bunga’ parties, Roman playboys had their holiday homes in Campania. Here, they could sit on their terraces with a nice goblet of vinum, taking in the sea views across the Bay of Naples and the beguiling wisps of smoke from Vesuvius.
Vines were cultivated on the hillsides, cooled by altitude and onshore breezes, which helped to extend the ripening period for the grapes. These same breezes blew volcanic ash over the vineyards, creating mineral-rich soils for the vines to grow in; the same ideal conditions found today.
It’s reassuring to know that the Romans were wine snobs too, as obsessed with special vineyard sites and vintages as we are today. Grapes from the most favoured plots were used to make Falernian wine, the most celebrated of the Roman world, and these grapes are thought to have been Falanghina.
Sadly, from a historical perspective at least, today’s fresh, aromatic Falanghina bears no resemblance to Tiberius’s tipple. The Roman nose, it seems, did not favour subtlety, preferring wines that were old, oxidised, sweet and strong, possibly around 15% alcohol. Perfect orgy wines, in fact.
Seeing as Falanghina is a white grape, references to ‘dark’ Falernian wine can be explained by the Roman practice of deliberately oxidising wines, sometimes by storing them in a loft directly above the hearth.
We would refer to this technique today as ‘maderisation’, whereby wine is heated up to artificially accelerate the ageing process, as used in Madeira. It produces wines of a deep amber hue with cooked, caramelised flavours.
Find out about Madeira, the cooked wine
Just as hedge-fund managers do today, the Romans were happy to pay well over the odds for very old wines, insisting that Falernian wine only started to approach its best after 20 years sealed in clay amphorae. The exceptional vintage of 121BC, the year of Opimius’s short consulship, was still being talked about, and drunk, 200 years later.
Chalk or marble dust were added to Roman wines to modify acidity, and the addition of salt or seawater during fermentation was said to ‘enliven a wine’s smoothness’ (Pliny).
The porous inner surfaces of amphorae were sealed with pine resin, which might have given Roman wines the merest hint of Toilet Duck. This might also explain the addition of various herbs, spices and honey to sweeten and tweak the flavour.
What to pair Falanghina with
Modern-day Falanghina, thankfully, is crisp and refreshing, typically with hints of citrus fruit, peaches and nectarines, an aromatic whiff of orange blossom and crisp, uplifting acidity.
This coastal wine goes with all manner of seafood and is tangy enough to stand up to tomato-heavy Neapolitan dishes. You could also try it with a Caesar salad.
Visit our fish and seafood section for great recipes to pair with Falanghina