I've been complimented on my wine choices at restaurants only a handful of times. (Maybe it's my tendency to hunt for bargains.) But one of those times was when I first tasted Falerno at Manhattan's I Trulli. At $28, it certainly wasn't expensive, although it was far from the cheapest bottle on the list (which gives you an idea of how un-New York this restaurant's wine-pricing policy is). This rich, ripe, generous red was incredibly smooth and concentrated. Made from two highly obscure and hard-to- pronounce grapes, Aglianico and Piedirosso, by a winery called Villa Matilde, in Campania, Italy, it haunted me for days. How could a wine that cost so little taste so good?
When I recount this story several months later to Villa Matilde's owners, Salvatore Avallone and his sister Maria Ida Di Simone, they seem pleased, if surprised. "When most Americans think of great Italian wines, they think of expensive wines from Piedmont and Tuscany, like Barolo and Brunello, not the wines of southern Italy," Salvatore says.
Located about 40 miles north of Naples, Villa Matilde is very much a winery of the south. Its vineyards are set in the Massico hills, which surround the Roccamonfina volcano; the sea lies just over three miles away. A grove of lemon trees stands in the center of the estate, where the winery's dogs seek shelter from Campania's near-constant sun. At one time, Salvatore says, they had 42: "People just kept bringing dogs to us." The buildings at Villa Matilde are roofed in red tile, their walls covered with flowers, making it seem more like a small, immaculate Mediterranean village than a commercial winemaking operation.