In March and April of 2020, winery owner Milena Pepe was quite depressed; her sales channels had been drying up from one day to the next. However, Americans at the military base not far from her winery were thirsty for adventure—and wine—in the post-lockdown climate. Milena quickly put together a wine tour and harvest kit to welcome the American wine lovers. She took them on an educational harvest tour followed by an outdoor wine tasting—everyone seated on straw balls, eating an Italian feast, while enjoying a wonderful view of the Irpinia landscape.
With her father, Angelo Pepe, Milena Pepe is the owner of Tenuta Cavalier Pepe. She has easily become one of the key players in the wine scene in Irpinia. The winery is located near Sant’Angelo all’Esca and Luogosano in the province of Avellino in Campania.
Irpinia is located in the inland of Campania and borders Basilicata and Puglia. The province of Avellino is the heart of this region. It is divided into 26 different communes where altitude (from about 200 to 800 meters) and soil formation changes slightly from sub-zone to sub-zone. There are four DOCGs in Campania and three of them—Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Taurasi—are produced in this area.
Instituted in 1993, Taurasi DOCG was the first and only DOCG in southern Italy for several years. Taurasi DOCG, which requires 85 percent Aglianico wine, is one of the most important red wines in Italy, along with Barolo and Brunello. The production area for Taurasi comprises 17 of the 26 districts in the province of Avellino. A zoning process has been carried out in more recent years dividing the Taurasi area into four main zones: Northern Hillside, Central Valley, West Hillside, and Southeast Hillside.
Tenuta Cavalier Pepe is situated in the Central Valley area at 400 to 500 meters (1,300-1,400 feet) altitude and where the soil is mainly calcareous clay containing layers of volcanic ash.
About 15 years ago, Belgian-born Milena realized that she wanted to make her and her father’s dream come true by returning to her family’s roots in Irpinia and turning their vineyards into a thriving winery.
Milena’s father, Cavalier Angelo Pepe, grew up in Luogosano, a little town in the heart of Irpinia. He was honored with the title Cavaliere della Repubblica Italiana by Luigi Scalfaro, a former President of the Italian Republic, for his work ethic and professionalism and this became the inspiration for the winery’s name. In the 1970s, Angelo studied languages at L’Orientale University in Naples and decided to study abroad in Belgium to satisfy his adventurous spirit. He stayed, met a girl, and worked his way up in the restaurant business. In 1979, the year when Milena was born, Angelo opened his first restaurant in Brussels. By the 1980s, Angelo expanded to five restaurants and one hotel.
During her high school years, Milena spent weekends helping her father in his restaurants. In fact, she says that her father taught her the value of hard work and customer service which has undoubtedly helped in establishing their winery’s reputation.
Angelo Pepe’s family had been small-scale vine growers in Irpinia, but it came to an end with the earthquake there in 1980. Angelo had an itch to start buying land close to his hometown to continue the family tradition and grow grapes. So in the early 2000s, Milena and her father began their setup for a winery. Milena decided to combine her degree in communication and business management with oenology and wine marketing studies.
She went to France to further her wine knowledge, starting at the Université du Vin in Suze-la-Rousse in Provence. She then continued with studies in viticulture and oenology at Macon-Davayé in Bourgogne. She also gained hands-on experience at wineries such as Domaine Chapoutier in Tain l’Hermitage. In this period, she learned that a vine grower and winemaker is not only a farmer, but an entrepreneur—including the management of supply chain from production to sales.
At the age of 25, in 2005, Milena went to Luogosano to put her knowledge to practice. She arrived in August just in time for her first harvest in Irpinia. In an agricultural and fairly conservative area of Italy, it was difficult for a young woman wanting to implement innovative winemaking. Even with the support of family, it is a big step to start a winery from scratch.
Milena says that the first years were tough, and she had to manage most things independently. She was not yet familiar with business culture and customs in Italy and had to roll up her sleeves and become the handyman, or rather ‘handywoman,’ of her winery. Often, she did not tell her family back in Belgium about her troubles so that they wouldn’t worry. There was this one time, she says, in those first days, when she slipped and fell three meters from a cement tank and went to the hospital in secret to patch up her bruises. Since that time, only the cellar manager can climb up on tanks and other equipment in the cellar.
Milena had a clear vision when she arrived in Italy; she wanted to produce monovarietal white and red wines. In the beginning, the goal was to produce wines that would appeal to the market, but the long-term aim was to make complex and elegant wines according to her own selection. Especially when it came to Aglianico, she understood its extraordinary potential.
It was Angelo Pepe who had chosen the grape varieties and planted the vineyard plots in the 1990s. However, since 2005, Milena has managed the winery and decides which wines to make. Milena has many anecdotes to tell about her time as a winemaker. Often, she would have innovative ideas for the locals and one time, she says, laughing, that the vineyard workers called her father saying that his daughter was crazy throwing away grapes.
Love conquers all
Milena recounts the story of how she met Augusto Guerriero, her future husband, in front of the Palazzo Baronale, in the center of Taurasi shortly after she arrived in Irpinia. They got married in 2009 and now have two sons together, Angelo Andrea and Alessandro Lorenzo. What better fairy tale than falling in love in front of a castle in the small town of Taurasi, the epicenter of Irpinian wine culture? It only proved to Milena she was on the right path.
Finding her place in Irpinia
Despite many struggles, it did not take long for Milena to become one of Irpinia’s central wine producers. Her first vintage was 2005, and today, she produces a wide selection of wines ranging from sparkling to white, rosé, red wines, and a passito wine. Her Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo, and Taurasi wines are her flagship wines. Milena found her place among the other producers in the area and became a board member of the consortium, Consorzio Tutela Vini d’Irpinia, in 2007 and was elected President from 2013 to 2017.
One of her first wines was from the Taurasi DOCG that she has symbolically named “Opera Mia” translated to “my work” as it indeed had been an enterprise carried out mostly on her own. She now also produces a Taurasi Riserva DOCG called La Loggia del Cavaliere. They are both powerful yet elegant wines with substantial but velvety tannins.
Aglianico is a grape cultivated mainly in Campania and Basilicata, but can also be found in Puglia, Lazio, and Molise. It is versatile and can produce both light-bodied wines as well as richer and more complex wines with extraordinary longevity. Generally, Aglianico wines are high in acidity and tannins, structured, mineral, with floral, herbaceous, and red-fruited notes. Aglianico wines have an ability to age for many years and gets better over time.
What does the future hold for Milena and Tenuta Cavalier Pepe? Milena wants to delve further into the supply-chain side of the business and focus more on digital marketing to gain better international visibility, increase sales abroad, and find new market opportunities. At home, she wants to further improve the grape selection process, develop the division of the vineyard plots into blocks, become more sustainable, and to always increase quality year after year.