In Spring 2016 I took four groups of wine lovers on tour to Puglia. We were based in Lecce, a gloriously beautiful Greco Roman town, from which we ventured each day to explore different areas. Both tours commenced on Wednesday evening, with a dinner the stylish Osteria degli Spiriti, and ended with a truly amazing dinner on the following Saturday evening. Most people flew into Bari, and many took the opportunity to explore Puglia and Campania further before or after the tour.
As with all of my tours, on each of the three full days of visits we took in at least two wine producers. Across the four tours we visited the following regions and wine producers.
Manduria is the spiritual home of the Primitivo grape.
This grape (known as Zinfandel in the USA) is much prized in Puglia and we experienced a superb range of wines at Cantine Soloperto. This family owned property pioneered the development of Primitivo in the early 70’s by actually bottling it and selling it as quality wine. The significance of this fact is that at this time Puglia generally didn’t bottle – they would ship the wine around in bulk – particularly to the north of Italy to bolster up the lighter reds or to make vermouth. It would be sold locally from the tank and people would fill up their own containers. Soloperto were leaders in the transition from bulk to quality, even bottling their wines before the DOC was introduced in 1974.
We tasted a light fresh white DOC Locorotondo made from the Verdeca grape, a delicate rosé made from Negroamaro and three Primitivo di Manduria wines that showed the evolution of Primitivo – from a smooth easy drinking style through to a super intense 17% example that was incredibly well balanced. We finished off with the Nektare Dolce Naturale. The Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale was the first wine in Puglia to receive a DOCG – the highest status in Italian wine law. A minimum of 80 gms/l residual sugar make this a delicious sweet wine without being too sickly or unctuous and yet retaining the typical richness that Primitivo delivers.
At Morella we experienced a totally different scale of production. Lisa Gilbee (born in Australia, trained at the prestigious Roseworthy college) met Gaetano Morella when she was a flying winemaker in southern Italy. They married and have dedicated themselves to making wine of immense character and quality from some very old vines. They own about 12 hectares, planted with Primitovo, Malbec, Fiano and Verdeca, and conducted our tasting in their brand new home built among the vines. We tasted a number of their wines over the tours, each visit culminating in a comparative tasting of their flagship ‘La Signora’ Primitivo and the ‘Old Vines’ Primitivo, demonstrating the difference even a few metres can make between plots of these old bush vines.
Due south of Lecce is the home of Puglia’s most famous wine region. We visited Conti Zecca – a family owned estate that dates back 500 years. Conti Zecca are pretty big with an annual production of three million bottles but have retained a friendly feel. We tasted through their range – a pleasant Verdeca was followed by some easy drinking Negroamaro rosé. The reds started to get a bit more serious with a full bodied Salice Salentino Riserva and a real highlight – their Nero 2004. A Primitivo/Cabernet Sauvignon blend with 12 years age. Despite the fact the 2004 was a difficult year in Puglia, this wine showed plenty of life with the Cab Sauv giving some wonderfully earthy claret-ey characteristics.
Our visits to Apollonio were preceded by a fabulous lunch at the underground Malcandrino restaurant. Apollonio is a family owned business, again large scale, which has built on its heritage to create an export driven success. We were taken through the old cement tanks now used for bottle storage, an underground tasting room, and the bottling room with its barrel light fittings. We tasted an amazing range of wines – Salice Salentino Bianco (Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc), a rosé, three reds and the Mater Terra Appassiamento 2007, a sweetie that had dessicated on the vine.
North of Lecce
We visited the small town of Guagnano – home of Vini Cantele.
There were some striking similarities between Cantele and Soloperto: both family owned, production of around 1.5million bottles, innovative and prepared to lead the crowd rather than follow it. Cantele used to supply vast quantities of wine to well-known supermarket chains in both the UK and the US before switching a few years ago to focus on smaller volume, higher quality markets. This lead to a halving of production and a potentially risky venture into unknown markets. They appear to have achieved success with great aplomb as we availed ourselves of the opportunity to taste a top class range of wines accompanied by a delicious four course lunch.
The Verdeca grape was tasted first, followed by a wonderfully fruity Fiano. Fiano is often more associated with the area around Naples but is increasingly popular in Puglia. Their barrel fermented Chardonnay was cracking – showing a delicious poise and elegance.
Showing their innovative streak, Cantele have just released their first Método Classico sparkling wine with 32 months on the lees. Made from Negroamaro, this was a delicious first experience of fizz made from this grape.
The Itrian Valley
The Itrian Valley is a limestone depression that marks the boundary between north and south Puglia between Brindisi and Bari. You climb from the Adriatic Coast past the phenomenally beautiful town of Ostuni, and find yourself in a very different landscape – undulating small fields surrounded by dry stone walls. The altitude makes for cooler nights, and combined with the limestone offers ideal conditions to grow white grape varieties.
Our first visit was to the small family owned estate of I Pastini. With just 14 hectares, they classify as a boutique winery relative to the vast quantities that are produced in Puglia. Gianni Carparelli, the second generation winemaker showed us round, including a fascinating tour of some 17th century trulli that are on the property. Trulli are the conical roofed stone shelters or storehouses that are very common in the Itrian Valley (the town of Alberobello is a Unesco World Heritage on account of its extraordinary density of trulli).
We experienced some wonderful indigenous grape varieties: Verdeca, Bianco d’Alessano and Minutolo are not grapes that many people have ever tasted but they hold their own in the Itrian Valley. We also tasted a sparkling Verdeca (a first for me!) and a wonderfully fruity red made from the Susumaniello grape – yet another indigenous grape that deserves more attention. It was noticeable how much more relaxed Gianni was on our later visits as he had managed to get married in between the second and third tours!
From I Pastini, we took a short hop north to Noci (literally a town called walnuts) and met Mark Shannon at a beautiful Masseria, a typical farmhouse restaurant. Mark is a Californian who set up A Mano wines with his Italian partner Elvezia back in 1998 and they very quickly established a reputation for making brilliant wines from local indigenous grapes such as Negroamaro, Susumaniello, Minutolo, Flanghina and Aleatico. And, of course, Primitivo. Jancis Robinson particularly credits Mark for having introduced top class Primitivo from Puglia to the United States!
A Mano means ‘by hand’, and Mark conveyed not only the pleasure he takes in making wine but in the whole Puglian culture. The lunch was a mind blowing selection of Puglian antipasti that mesmorised the tastebuds: stuffed artichokes, courgettes in many forms, bread salad, aubergine creations and a host of delicious dishes that were totally new experiences for everyone. It showed Puglian cuisine in a truly glorious shining light of creativity and flavour.
Our final dinner
On each tour our final dinner took place at Castello Monaci. This castle is dripping in history: built by French ‘occupiers’ in the sixteenth century, inhabited by monks, abandoned and finally coming into Italian ownership. The castle is stunning with a magnificent roof top view of 300 hectares of vineyards. Castello Monaci is also a wedding venue and we were in peak wedding season, so on each visit our experience was different – a different route through the grounds and castle, avoiding the wedding party (or parties!), and enjoying our superb dinner with equally fabulous estate wines, in different parts of the castle.
It was a fitting end to a stunning tour – Puglia revealed a combination of heritage, ambition, food culture and sheer style that was totally engaging. I think everyone who visited with me in 2016 agrees that Puglia deserves recognition as a major wine tour destination and I look forward to returning in years to come.
“Thank you so much for a most enjoyable tour to Puglia. All the wineries were very interesting and the last night in the magical castle was a real highlight.” – Frances, Chiswick
“A very big “Thank You” for a most enjoyable tour” – Ian R, Reading
“Super visits, very interesting people and fantastic lunches. What a spectacular last night” – Paula Fox, Henley