Due Palme – how to run a cooperative

Wineries in Italy come in all sizes and shapes. Some are tiny, where every decision is made by the owner who is also the grape grower, the picker, the wine maker, the marketing/PR and the seller. Others are sizeable companies with all the sophistication and complexity that can bring. Due Palme is one of the largest co-operatives in Southern Italy with 1,000 growers with a highly practical and large-scale plant on the edge of Cellino San Marco. But it is not just size which makes it interesting, it is the close relationship between the growers and the company.  The growers are invited every week to sessions with the agronomo, the tecnical agricultural specialist, to hear about current issues, to get advice and no doubt to meet their friends. When the growers bring in their grapes at harvest time they are photographed and the back wall of the magnificent meeting hall is adorned by their pictures.  So this is far from a cold, solely mercantile, relationship – it’s a mutual exchange of expertise and local knowledge: the growers are at the heart of the venture.

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Our tour starts with the tightly organised system for receiving the grapes. The lorry in the picture on the left is parked, as it happens, on the incoming weighing platform. As each vehicle arrives, large or small, carrying the year’s produce, it is weighed and assigned a unique identification number.  It then moves on to the next point where a sample is taken of the grape juice to ascertain the sugar levels in the grapes and visual examination leads to the grapes being classified as quality A, B or C. These tests are then the basis of the price paid to the grower, who also receives a premium if the grapes are grown on the traditional alberello system, the small unwired bushes, which produce the lowest yields and the best quality, but are more work to look after as everything has to be done by hand.  In this way, the cooperative admirably encourages one of the special features of Puglian viticulture.

Once the grapes have been sorted they move to the next station where they are pressed (the vast majority of production is red wine) and enter the fermentation tanks.  The vast tanks in the picture above are for the basic wines which the region and the cooperatives do so well.  The premium grapes are fermented in much smaller, temperature controlled, horizontal vats with a sophisticated mechanism which both keeps the cap of skins and pips submerged and moves them gently.  This technology, used with ripe fruit and the local varieties, results in the Due Palme style:  balanced wines with plenty of extraction of colour but relatively low tannin levels.  There is a modest use of wood for maturing the top wines, reducing cost and again aiming for fruit-led wines which can be drunk young, even the top wines which win prizes across the world.  It is a very successful and laudable philosophy.

IMG_7520Due Palme is also to be congratulated for its innovation. One of the real surprises here is the recent success of their sparkling wines, a product associated with the relatively cool parts of Northern Italy, not bakingly hot Puglia. Three years ago Angelo Maci, president and chief wine maker, made the mental leap that the local Negroamaro grape had the right acidity/alkilinity profile to make good sparking wine.  They now make the base wines here – a white and a rosé – and then send them up to Treviso to undergo second fermentation in vats (Charmat).  The innovation received public recognition earlier this month with both the white and the rosé receiving prizes at Vinitaly, the gigantic national wine fair, .

At the conclusion of our tour, we tasted four wines from the large range, the two sparklers, the Susumaniello and the famous riserva.  Melarosa (‘pink apple’), is a non-vintage sparkling wine, in reality 2010, with a fine mid salmon-pink colour and good bubbles.  The colour alone

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is going sell a lot of bottles. It has good plum and cherry fruit and like many Puglian rosés, the structure and depth of flavour to go well with food; in other words it is not just an aperitivo.  Puglia is famous for its pink wines so why not make a sparkling version? 

The second sparking wine, Neviera, is white and also made from Negroamaro grape, and therefore has to avoid any seepage of the colour of the skins into the wine.  But it doesn’t just look different, it tastes very different, more apple than plum and really quite perfumed.  Both are highly drinkable, not for ageing, but enjoyable sparkling wines at a good price. 

From the reds we had to try the speciality the Susumaniello, a local grape variety on the verge of extinction until quite recently.  The growers did not like it as it is very productive for ten years and then the yields drop dramatically, so it is only a commercial proposition if you can get a higher price for low yields after its youthful vigour has declined.  Its other great feature is that it has twice the anthocyanins of Primitivo – not exactly a blushing violet itself – and so produces wines of great depth of colour, as you can see in the glass on the right above.  It used to be used in blends but now there is a demand for it on its own as the world of wine gets bored of Cabernet and Merlot from almost anywhere.  Le Serre, Susumaniello 2009, has deep, deep plum notes, almost as though it were made from semi-dried grapes, with pepper and liquorice, following six months in new barriques. Well-mannered if intense fruit, low tannins and medium acidity make for great drinkability, with its real strength being in its depth of flavour. 

Finally, we tasted the flagship wine Selvarossa, Salice Salentino riserva DOC, 2007, which is the classic blend of 90% Negroamaro and 10% Malvasia nera, and spends nine months in French oak.  Rich, complex, beautiful acidity and balance, all make for a very good wine indeed.  Very intense nose, dense plum fruit, layers of interest.  The house style here is for accessible wines, but this is far more than that, a wine that you could keep and let develop for some years – but typically most Italians would drink young for its assertive freshness.

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We came away full of admiration for the organisation, the team work and the clarity of vision of Due Palme. Large does not have to mean impersonal or bland. The faces of the growers in the smart audience hall are a testament to the hard work, commitment and rootedness of this cooperative.  Any cooperative that can export 90% of its wines around the world is getting a lot of things right.   Many thanks to Paola and all the team at Due Palme – and especially those 1,000 growers.
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