Valle d’Itria – island of whites in a sea of reds
If you didn’t know about the Valle d’Itria, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is not much white wine made in Puglia. At many of the wineries we visited, the reds outnumbered the whites by four or five to one, especially if you counted the rosés of which there are many. Further, most white wine is of the bulk variety especially on the flat plain in the north of the region, much of which goes into the martini industry. In fact, over 40% of the wine produced in the region is white – but this is put into perspective by the point that less than 10% of all Puglian wine is bottled at all.
The quality reds do outnumber the quality whites considerably, but there are some areas particularly devoted to white wine, principally the Valle d’Itria with its calcareous soils. The two key towns are Locorotondo and Martina Franca – and given the proliferation of DOCs, they both have one. The most important local white varieties are Bianco d’Alessano and Verdeca.
The Valle d’Itria is chiefly famous for its architectural heritage, especially the trulli, the stone-built conical houses which dot the landscape. But of course, people use the abundant white stone for all sorts of buildings, including wineries. The picture shows the Albea winery which is entirely built in the local stone and has little ‘trulli’ like conical features built into it.
At Albea we tasted Il Selva, Locorotondo DOC, 2009, made from 60% Verdeca, 35% Bianco d’Alessano with 5% Fiano. These white varieties ripen later than Primitivo and are picked in September. At room temperature, it is really quite fragrant and herbaceous, with a salty finish.
Much more mundane in terms of its buildings is Agrialp, down close to the Adriatic coast and surrounded by some of the most intriguing and perfect olive trees you could hope to see. The company deals in a whole range of agricultural goods, but this being Puglia olive oil and wine are pretty high up on the list. Remarkably for a small, non-specialist company, they have one of only 20 white wines which got ‘two glasses’ from Gambero Rosso in its three glass classification system.We started our tasting at Agrialp with olive oil, reasonably enough. Much as I love olive oil, I have to say that olive oil tastings really don’t cut it with me, however good the oil … I am always impatient to get on to the wine.
We taste two local whites. Monte Pizzuto, Martina Franca DOC, 2010, made of all four main Puglian white varieties – mostly Verdeca, then Bianco d’Alessano, then Fiano Minutolo and finally Bombino Bianco, the workhorse. It is quite grassy and nutty, a good, quite substantial palate, with medium persistence – a good lunchtime white I would say. And the price? €3.55. So a lot of quality for a very small amount of cash. Similarly, good and good value is Monte Cannone, Locorotondo DOC, 2010, Verdeca, Bianco d’Alessano and this time, 5% Malvasia. I didn’t find this more fragrant than the first white but again a worthwhile, refreshing white. Agrialp also does a series of reds and riserva reds of amazing value and quality, sourced from the Salento.
And the best white wines we tasted in Puglia? These just described are good as are some of the Chardonnays, in either oaked or unoaked styles (eg Cantele). Alberto Longo’s two styles of Falanghina are real contenders. I have a very soft spot for Cantine Carpentiere’s off-the-wall white wine from black Nero di Troia grapes: Come d’incanto. But from a native grape, it has to be a choice between Rasciatano’s Malvasia Bianca and Li Veli’s Verdeca 2010 (mostly Vedeca but with some Fiano Minuto). The latter certainly has the most beautiful label among the whites, though we shouldn’t be overly swayed by this. It is floral, grassy, with mature pear notes, nuts, a fine acidity and good texture. Very good.
Overall the Puglian whites can’t really compete with the reds at the very top quality level. Gambero Rosso’s 2011 guide gives you an instant snapshot: Rasciatano’s Malvasia was the only white to get to the national finals (which we could call ‘two and a half glasses’) but didn’t get the top rating of ‘three glasses’, while 19 other whites got the very creditable ‘two glasses’. By contrast, if we ignore multiple vintages of the same wines, ten different red wines got the full ‘three glasses’. But that does not mean that the whites are not worthwhile or without their interest. There is definitely life beyond the bulk whites of the past.
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