Il Cancelliere, Montemarano
Here’s the thing: I love Il Cancelliere. I literally love everything about this winery: the family, the wines, their traditions, even their dogs. The Romano family is fantastic and headed by Soccorso, who would literally be a casting director's dream for a Southern Italian winemaker. The vineyards are picturesque. And the wines...well the wines are incredible. And their winery is a perfect representation of why it’s so important to know more than just the wines of the region to understand what makes the wines so great. Because it’s more than just grapes and vineyards, it all becomes so much more special when you also know the traditions in Irpinian families, in Irpinian food, and in Irpinian culture.
From the very first sip of their wines at the infamous crashed wine dinner you’ll read about below, I knew these wines were something special. It was definitely a love at first sip kind of experience, and I remember instantly thinking they had to be a part of wine club. But here’s the amazing thing: through some sort of voodoo magic they have over there in the village of Montemarano, I like the wines more every single time I try them. Not a joke, and I certainly don't understand it, but it’s a fact and even more, it’s a testament to their wines.
This family of winemakers are a picture perfect representation of what makes Irpinia wines and the people who make them so special. The winery name comes from the “soprannome” or family nickname widely used across Irpinia to help distinguish which Soccorso, which Romano, which Raffaele, etc. you’re talking about in daily conversations. The family “soprannome” is Il Cancelliere, which translated means “the gate.” But this winemaking haven in Montemarano is anything but a closed off reality. If anything, it’s the gateway to family, to love, to passion for winemaking, and for fun. Between Soccorso’s wife, sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and sons-in-law they’re producing some of the best Aglianico wines in Irpinia.
It was through Rita, Soccorso’s daughter-in-law, I first got to know Il Cancelliere. I had accidentally crashed a winemaker dinner at one of the best restaurants in Irpinia with some of the top winemakers in the region. While I’d technically been invited by one of these winemakers, make no mistake, I definitely crashed this dinner. I don’t get embarrassed easily or often, but that night was definitely one of those rare occasions I would have gladly melted into the floor when I realized what I’d walked into. Thankfully Rita helped make me feel at home in an instant even though we’d never met, pouring me some of the family’s wine and telling me to sit next to her. She is the living embodiment of Irpinia warmth, hospitality, and friendliness at every level. (The others instantly made me feel welcome as well, because, duh this is Irpinia, but that’s another story for another time.)
Rita is a constant figure in the vineyards day in and day out, tending to the Irpinia Aglianico vines and overseeing every aspect of the progression of the grapes that will be used to produce their exceptional wines. Rita often spends her days alongside Soccorso where they work by hand in the vines, ensuring they’re healthy, that the “grappoli” (grape bunches) are in good shape and up to the family’s quality standards, tending to their home garden (what we in America would consider to be a small farm), and on top of all that, she cooks some of the most delicious meals you can imagine. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
From the moment you turn your car up the long driveway that leads from the country road to their front door, you know you’re in for something different than what you’ve seen or experienced in other winemaking regions. As soon as you stop your car, the family starts pouring out of the house that sits next to the cantina. Kids, parents, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles...you name it, they’re there to give you a warm welcome the moment you step out of your car. You instantly know you’re in a special place. But really, you started to feel that energy in the air the second you turned your car down their drive. It’s more often than not that I’m left thinking “only in Irpinia, and only with this family” when I’m at Il Cancelliere.
Soccorso learned winemaking from his father and his father’s father who learned from their fathers and mothers. For generations they had cultivated Aglianico grapes on their land and sold these precious and perfect grapes to some of the best wineries in Irpinia. In the 1990s, the family decided their grapes deserved a label of their own and the family started producing their wine under their own label using the family name, Il Cancelliere. They only make red wines from Irpinia Aglianico grapes and it’s 100% a family affair in every sense of the word.
It was a cold March day in 2018 when I made my first trip to visit Il Cancelliere in person. After a whirlwind of names I was sure I’d never remember during my first introductions upon exiting the car, the effervescent Rita whisked me into the vineyards with a huge smile and a warm hug. We started walking the rows of Irpinia Aglianico vines, as she explained to me about the family philosophy and respect for the land, the vines and the grapes, their natural winemaking techniques, and how each section of the vineyard its own cru for the different varieties of Aglianico wines they’d make that year.
She was passionate, as is the entire family, about her work in the vineyards and in the cantina, and she quickly became my winemaking teacher showing me how to use branches of a plant to tie the vines to their posts for ultimate growing positions using what’s called a “key.” I’d later demonstrate my newly learned skill, or what I thought was my new skill, for Soccorso who laughed and told me I still had a lot of work to do with a teasing smile. He wasn’t wrong.
I’d come to learn this jovial jest was more or less his trademark over family meals shared together, and what would become regular phone calls from him to check in on me over the years and months to come. Soccorso was always full of joy, always the first to make a joke, and he transmitted this sense of pure happiness to his entire family. And this playful teasing, this love, the warmth, the quick joke, well I will swear to you it’s something you can actually taste in their wines.
Every trip to Il Cancelliere is a meandering stroll through the vi