The Murgia – winemaking on the low limestone hills
If you mention Puglia to a reasonably well-informed drinker of Italian wines, they will immediately think of the Salento peninsula or of bulk wine. The Salento has been the flag bearer for quality wine, with Primitivo di Manduria leading the way, ably supported by wines made from the Negroamaro grape, whether red or rosé. So the big surprise of our visit in April 2011 was the quality and excitement of the wine scene in the centre of Puglia, the Murgia. This is a limestone plateau marked out by the Ofanto river and the flat land of northern Puglia to the North and Messapia to the south. It is dotted with towns with evocative names – in English, ‘Living Water of the Fountains’ or ‘Joy of the Hill’! Between the towns, there is productive agricultural and olive-planted land. In spring it looks wonderful with the wildflowers in full bloom.
Limestone is of course often an indicator of the potential for quality wine. The Murgia has two quality red grape varieties to play with – Primitivo (to which it has a prior claim, as we shall see) and the possibly even more exciting Nero di Troia. The history of the Primitivo grape variety is complex, as shown by the debate about whether Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same (the consensus now being that they are closely related) and whether they both go back to somewhere on the Dalmatian coast. What is more secure is that the grape variety was first selected in Puglia for its early ripening quality (hence its name) in the Murgia. The story is that in the late 1700s, the marvellously named local priest, Francesco Indelicati (‘indiscretions’), selected the variety in Gioia del Colle on account of it being the earliest grape to ripen. It then became a success further south, while in the last decade or so, the wines from the Murgia itself have begun to get recognition. Even less well known is the Nero di Troia variety, which has recognition in the Italian wine press, but little elsewhere. It can produce superbly savoury, balanced wines, especially in the shadow of Frederic II’s massive thirteenth century Castel del Monte, wines that deserve more recognition.
The range of wineries producing quality wines in the Murgia is impressive. We start with those who feature in the old heartland of Primitivo, move on to the wines of the Castel del Monte area and finish – on a high – with individuals making their very particular mark.
- Polvanera – making the most of Primitivo
- Torrevento – from the supermarket to the connoisseur’s table
- Rasciatano – fine olive oil and wine
- Rivera – reliable quality
- A Mano – Californian + Friulian expertise = the new Puglia
Filippo Cassano has been in charge at Polvanera since 2000. As with many quality-minded growers, he has both bought old vine Primitivo, trained as bushes, and planted new vineyards to spurred cordons. Filippo is positive about the future. The position of the vineyards is good at 400 metres above soil level and there are different soils to experiment with. The decision to go organic with certification will reassure customers. The labelling and marketing show an assured touch. Originally the bottles were known by the percentage of alcohol – in this warm climate with Primitivo that means 14, 16 and even 17. These numbers have in turn become the labels, though Filippo is quick to add that the 17 is perfectly balanced.
There is also plenty of signs of independence of mind in the winery. A big decision has been to age his red wines solely in stainless steel and not use barrels. In the corner of the underground storage area, there is a small line of new barriques still in their plastic wrappings as confirmation of this. The idea, of course, is to give maximum expression to the ripe fruit. For a quality wine producer not to use oak at all is a big statement. Equally, Filippo is experimenting with sparkling wine. There is some commercially available which is made by the common second fermentation in a tank method. But there is also a large number of bottles stored underground undergoing second fermentation in a bottle, making use of the acidic second crop of grapes that vines put on, which are rarely put to any use. Clearly innovation is in the air.
We did not have a full tasting at the winery as Filippo had at the moment to leave for the States to promote the wine. We did drink the basic range with pleasure at a lunch later in the day and I will add the top wines as we taste them.
Minutolo 2010, IGT Puglia, – very pale in colour, only 12% (worth noting in Puglia), with an attractive and quite assertive melon and grassy nose, followed by a good palate, fresh and very drinkable. Good persistence. Without being world beaters, good white wines are being made in Puglia, here from the Fiano Minutolo grape. Up to the minute as ever, Filippo has already called his ‘Minutolo’, which will be in the grape’s name in the future, to avoid confusion with Campania’s Fiano.
‘14’, Primitivo, Gioia del Colle DOC, 2008 – beautifully fresh nose of dark cherry, plum and prune fruit, a superbly balanced and drinkable red, real depth, richness and interest. And this is the ‘basic’ wine.
Many thanks to Filippo Cassano and I hope the trip to the States went well. The wines are imported by Adnams who have a nice article on the excitement the red caused at their staff tasting.
Before I set off on a wine trip, it is fun to see what wines you can buy locally from the area you are going to visit, either in the supermarket or in a specialist shop. I have been buying Torrevento’s Torre di Falco in Waitrose this winter for its sappy, savoury fruit and touch of Italian class. It was my introduction to Puglia’s Nero di Troia grape and certainly made me look forward to tasting more. Most reds from this far south are powerful, dense wines. By contrast, this is medium bodied and more like Nerello Mascalese from Sicily – or, jocularly, the Pinot Noir of the South!
I will be the first to admit that the photo on the right is not the most exciting I have ever taken. But it is a photo of three palates of wine destined from England – two cases of Torre di Falco for Waitrose (a bottle or two of which I may be drinking later in the year) and Primitivo in the I Palastri line which is destined for Sainsbury’s, which I will be trying. Torrevento is a very large concern – 23 different bottlings in its main lines and two million bottles per year in total. But big can mean beautiful. For those of us who don’t live in countries which produce wine in any volume, inexpensive bottles with some local character are important. Arguably they are as a good an indicator of quality as the quality of premium wines.
We were shown around with great courtesy by Andrea Fabbiano of the export department. The plant rather neatly illustrates the history of winemaking in Puglia. First of all, it is now based on the site of a former monastery and of course, in the past, it was often the church which had the land and the continuity to make its mark. Then, in addition to acres of modern stainless steel, Torrevento still has its large scale ‘cement’ vessels, these days lined with glass. People are often slightly coy about these – but they do an excellent job and once you have them, they last forever. Finally, Andrea points out that the stainless steel vessels which you see all over Italy (with the blue label) are manufactured in the nearby town of Corato. The large wooden casks here (picture on the left) are a sign of the past and the future – the botte is coming back into fashion as a subtler way of ageing wine than the French barrique.
We taste the ‘classic’ line, ie the traditional wines made to a high standard. There is also a varietal line with all the usual Puglian grapes plus Falanghina, well established, or indeed indigenous, in this northern part of the region.
Pezzapiana, Castel del Monte DOC Bianco, 2010 – made from Bombino Bianco (70%) and Pampanuto (30%), the former being a widely diffused grape notable for its acidity, the latter a bit of a local speciality which contributes roundness. The wine is pleasantly fresh, with melon and some floral notes, good simple drinking.
Faneros, Salice Salento DOC Rosso, 2008 – in addition to the 200 hectares Torrevento owns, it has another 200 which it rents in various parts of Puglia, including the Salento. The blend of this wine is typical for the area, 90% Negroamaro, 10% Malvasia Nera, aged in stainless steel for 10 months, with the resulting wine being full of forward fruit, a good tangy finish and, again, very drinkable.
At the top of the tree is Vigna Pedale, Castel del Monte Riserva DOC, 2007, the big brother (?sister) of Waitrose’s Torre del Falco, similarly 100% Nero di Troia. The yields are rather lower, from a single vineyard and the wine is given prolonged ageing: up to a year in the traditional large barrel, eight months in stainless steel, a year in a bottle. This is a fine wine which we drank in restaurants on several occasions during our stay, the quality/price ratio being so good: it leads with the typical sour cherry with a bit of preserved cherry and plum, overlaid with some spice and smoke. The palate again is packed with fruit but well balanced and a good level of pretty refined tannins. 2005 is not in the same class, the wood being more dominant, but it was a more difficult year. They also make an international blend which I am sure will be very good: Kebir, 50/50, Nero di Troia and Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Salice Salentino Riserva, called (if that is the right term) ‘Sine Nomine’.
Many thanks to Andrea and to all at Torrevento – and I hope that the UK supermarkets give you a reasonable price for your work.
Janet and I had a very happy morning tasting with Maria Luisa Cafiero and Gian Michele Porro of Vigne de Rasciatano – and received one of the best tips we have ever had for lunch. This is a proper traditional estate with vineyards, olive groves and fine old house and a lawn of which the English could be proud, being mowed as we arrived. Maria Luisa is obviously proud of it and instructed me to take a picture of it, so here it is! Olive oil is just important here as wine and we begin our tour with the olive grinder and the presses, the pictures which you can see here. We were promised an olive oil tasting but we got so engrossed in the wine that we all forgot about the other precious liquid. It was particularly valuable to taste both the current release and an older vintage.
Malvasia Bianca 2010 – a rare chance to taste wine made solely from Malvasia and indeed grown on the tendone pruning system, more associated with huge yields (eg table grapes) than with quality wine. The wine is made from grapes harvested in two periods, a part in early/mid-August for freshness and the rest in early September. In addition, a portion of the wine is fermented in barrels, which probably accounts for the lack of overdone aromatics which you might expect with 100% Malvasia. The wine is good straw yellow in colour, fresh and assertive on the nose, attractive palate with some citrus and floral notes, and good persistence. The best white wine in Puglia according to Gambero Rosso 2011 – but there will be lots of arguments about that! The 2009 is much more developed and knit together, having lost some freshness but gained in coherence. It still has lots of life but will probably be at its peak for another year.
Rosé 2010 – here the rosé is made from the Montepulciano grape, which is dominant in parts of northern Puglia and especially in neighbouring Molise. It is a very deeply coloured grape so even making wine as though it were white produces this lovely deep rosé colour. It is given the same treatment as the white, part fermented in used barriques. Dry to the taste, red cherries and some plum, with a pleasant slight bitterness. Getting a reasonable price for rosé in Puglia is not a problem because of the demand for quality wines in this style.
Nero di Troia 2008 – these vines are grown in a mixture of tendone and spurred cordon to give maximum flexibility according to the season, but the yield is controlled, 1.5kg per plant, and it gets a full three weeks of maceration on the skins. Aged for a year in barriques and a second in bottles, this is a wine made for the medium term. It has a classic sour cherry nose, a very delicious savour palate, and at the moment, quite a drying, tannic finish. Relatively speaking 2008 was rounded and softer than 2007, but obviously it is still very young. 2007 has very good fruit and is good drinking now, but this so much depends on expectation – Italians, in general, prefer their wines young and vibrant, but then they nearly always drink them with food, which is a very different experience than wine on its own.
Rosso 2009 – is the Rasciatano take on an international blend, in this year 70% Nero di Troia, then Montepulciano and Cabernet Sauvignon, so a mainly Puglian ‘international’. But despite the Cabernet being the minor partner its presence is very clear – peppers and red fruit on the nose. A much more rounded (and less distinctive) wine, but good nonetheless. The 2006, a humble Vino da Tavola in terms of classification, was only 50% Nero di Troia and used more new wood, and so is a very different wine. With a bit of bottle age, this is very attractive, rounded out, blackberries and plums, good fruit persistence and the tannins well covered.
And the lunch tip? The very special Antichi Sapori at Montegrosso, which you can read about here. Many thanks to Maria Luisa and Gian Michele … and all the best for the future. I hope you find an importer in England, not least because I would like to buy your wines!
Rivera, a company named after its locality, is the creation of the de Corato family, now its third generation, and has been a leader in Puglia since 1950. At 1.3m bottles a year it is a pretty big producer, which also makes some of the region’s top wines. It is famous for Puer Apuliae (Puglian Boy, if you didn’t do Latin at school), made from Nero di Troia, as well as for a good range of wines made from local and some French grape varieties. Roberta Tanzi showed us around on an uncommonly quiet day – in fact it turned out that nearly everybody in the winery had the week after Easter off as holiday. If the 6000 bottles an hour bottling line had been working, there would have been a very different feel to the place.
They have all the kit here – large scale, outdoor temperature-controlled fermentation vessels, various generations of indoor tanks, including the older concrete ones with cooling elements within them (see picture on the right). All this is important, but the quality of the wine actually depends on the fruit in the first instance and then the skill of the wine maker. The latter may have been invisible on this day, but the results are there to taste. We tasted a sample of four wines.
Marese 2010 is Rivera’s Bombino Bianco, Castel del Monte DOC, made here in a slightly different style with more rounded fruit to go with its natural acidity, from more mature grapes. While they can pick Sauvignon and Chardonnay in the second week of August, the Bombino is picked in September. (As we often noted, one of Puglia’s advantages is the very long harvest, and therefore vinification, season, from early August through to third week of October for Nero di Troia and Montepulciano. As you can see from the picture, the rosé, Pungirosa 2010, made from the local grape Bombino Nero, is an attractive pale pink. We didn’t discuss its name which presumably picks up the thorns of the rose … which seems a bit harsh. Again, late picking and low yields of Bombino Nero make for a light, highly drinkable wine, with good floral notes and balance and, as with all the good Puglian rosés, well suited to food.
Two reds followed, both based on our new friend, Nero di Troia. Violante 2007 is in the classic line. The name is a fairly rare Italian girl’s name, related obviously to Viola, much loved by some royals down to the Savoy family, not to mention the occasional actress. But it is not a girly wine: made for quality everyday drinking, with no wood ageing, it has lovely damson fruit, violets (of course), and those savoury notes so typical of Italian reds. Very good.
There is a step up in quality to Il Falcone Castel del Monte DOC, Riserva, 2006, made from 70% Nero di Troia and then Montepulciano, aged in barriques for a year and at least a year in bottle. The colour is a very dense ruby red and the wine is redolent of deep red and black fruit, with nice smoky notes, the wood being fully integrated at this five year point. Very elegant tannins and acidity complete the picture.
Many thanks to Roberta and all the (invisible) workers at Rivera – here’s to the next 50 years.
Let’s finish this journey around the Murgia on a high. There are many ways to run a quality wine business, but the conventional one is to have total control over production by growing your own grapes. After all, as the saying goes, quality wine is made in the vineyard. In the winery the most you can do is to express the quality of the harvested grapes, it is said. Mark Shannon and Elvezia Sbalchiero’s A Mano (‘by hand’) has gone by a different route. Californian winemaker Mark tells the story: the couple had lots of previous experience in the wine business and what they noticed about Puglia was the wonderful quality of the Primitivo grapes and the poor quality of the wine. So they created a different model, incentivising the growers. The deal was to be: you provide us with the very best grapes (and we will only accept them if they are really good); we will pay you 50% above the going rate and we will pay you half immediately and half on delivery. Altogether it was a revolutionary package in southern Italy.
But there was more to this than just the money. Mark treads a fine line. He isn’t a distant figure who may or may not return. He lives here, he can go and have a coffee with a grower, he speaks Italian. And then he appoints good agents who can speak the dialect. He does pay well but he has to say ‘no’ when the quality is not good enough, whoever it is. He says that attitudes changed after three years – he was here to stay and had set his standard.
The winery is based in Gioa del Colle, where Primitivo was first selected for its early ripening qualities (primiticcio, ‘first boy to awake’ is Mark’s version). From here the couple have created a line of exceptionally interesting wines, with the freedom which comes from being experienced outsiders – Friuli, on the border with Slovenia, is just about in Italy, but from the perspective of Puglia, it might as well be as far away as California. This freedom has allowed them to express well what Puglia does naturally and do the unusual when that is required. From a start in 1999 they now produce ‘some of Puglia’s most interesting wines’ says the 2011 Gambero Rosso, one of Italy’s top wine guides.
As the winery was having its annual clean and through our hosts’ generous hospitality, we tasted the wines at Mark and Elvezia’s wonderful new house near Madonna della Scala, outside the town of Noci . This gave plenty of scope for exchanging building stories as Janet and I are in the phase of life known as ‘mid-extension’! The scale of their project is rather grander and they have created a fantastic, spacious, minimalist home with splendid pieces of sculpture and art in it, which are life-affirming and humorous by turn. There is every chance that the wines are going to be good when you see how much people are making of their lives – and how much they are happy to give to others. We tasted seven wines (and a special one over supper), all of them with real interest.
Fiano-Greco 2010 – this white blend is normally 50/50, with the Fiano providing the aromatics and the Greco the body. However, nature cannot be relied on and in this year, when it rained early, it is 85% Fiano. Pale straw in colour with a green tinge, it has a forward nose of apricot and flowers. How is the intensity achieved? With a small percentage of ‘super juice’, that is from semi-dried grapes kept for 7-8 weeks. If the standard white wine does not have enough character, do something about it!
Rosato 2010 – here Mark is looking for a difficult combination: full in flavour, low in alcohol to retain balance and an attractive colour. The grape mix is an unusual 50/50 blend of Primitivo and Aleatico, the latter contributing its distinctive rose petal aromas but in this blend doesn’t overpower the wine. The wine impresses with its floral notes, its freshness and its good crisp finish.
Negroamaro 2008 – this version is very fruit-led, with high acidity, with some clove and eucalyptus aromas developing as we spoke. To achieve this, in what can be a very robust wine, it is cool fermented (16-17°) and then given a short ‘vacation’ of less than two months in wood – 25% American, some Italian oak, some chestnut.
Promesso 2009 – although A Mano makes wines mainly from local grapes, there is no need to be doctrinaire about it. This innovation is Syrah and Merlot, produced organically. Mark is not sure about the organic market – some of the wines seem to be made because just to be organic and taste doesn’t matter. The wines can’t be seen to be expensive. So to succeed organic wine has to be very good and at the right price – and then it is OK. While the amount of paperwork may be anti-ecological and the testing rigid, there is no doubt about the simple attractiveness of this: bright fruit, good colour, highly drinkable.
Primitivo IGT Puglia, 2008 – a touch of 5% Aleatico adds aroma to this wine. One third of the grapes come from Gioia, the rest from Manduria and Sava, hence no DOC. Again cold fermentation is used to preserve the fruit richness which is topped by cloves and herbs. A super wine at an attractive price, the most important wine for the business.
Prima-Mano 2008 – at this point we move to a different quality level with wines made from vines with very low yields and growing on red sand by the sea. It is a single vineyard wine made only in the best years, with fine savoury notes, a gorgeous richness and a fine combination of elegance and power. The wood treatment is again quite particular – 10-12 months in barriques and botti, some of which are chestnut or cherry or have some sections in these wood – which are softer and can leak. When you are in charge, you can make unconventional decisions which can give you that extra finesse.
Supper brings three more wines, first an experimental one:
Sangiovese 2008 – I don’t think Mark is much impressed with most Sangiovese, grown over much of Italy and accounting for 10% of all vines in the country. It can tend toward the thin and acidic. Needless to say, his isn’t either of these – in fact it is rich and velvety, with a nice sharpness at the back of the palate. How does he do it? By semi-drying the grapes again, as with the white wine above. If it works for the humble Corvina which makes the grand Amarone in the Veneto, why not with Sangiovese? But probably only a Californian in Puglia would have a go!
A treat at supper. On being asked what other wines we like (an impossible question – how does one chose?), we hit on Piemonte and Janet waxed lyrical about Barbera. Mark disappeared and reappeared with a fine magnum of Sandrone’s Barbera 1998 – quite unusual, as on the whole people don’t keep Barbera to age. Luciano Sandrone is quite simply one of Piemonte’s great winemakers and says that his Barbera will age for a decade. Well, this 13-year-old certainly passed the test with ease: lovely tertiary development on the nose, all mushrooms and truffles, then still excellent fresh fruit, black and red berries and even blueberry, smooth and velvety in texture, very good indeed.
And finally: Aleatico 2009. Aleatico is widely grown in Puglia, on the Tuscan coast and islands and elsewhere. It is particularly suited to sweet wines made from the passito method, ie partially dried grapes producing wines of around 15-16% with some residual sweetness, but not a great deal. (There is also a fortified version which tends to be much less interesting.) This example has a nose of dense roses and very attractive fruit, from redcurrant to blackberry, good acidity, modest sweetness, all in all, refreshing and good.
Many, many thanks to Mark and Elvezia: all the very best for the completion of the house and garden … and of course for the 2011 wines. The wines are available in the UK, for example, from Slurp
It would be easy to typecast Puglia – but as these days in the Murge show, along with the bulk wine, some good and some indifferent, there is a real vitality to the quality wine scene.
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