Amazing wines from an indigenous region

Photo: Olive harvest
The home of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick: Apulia stands for a diversity of grapes that is second to none in Italy.

Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was admired by his contemporaries as stupor mundi (wonder of the world), had a good sense of scenic beauty: he loved the Castel del Monte in northern Apulia with its shroud of mystery, where his eye could roam widely over large woods of holm oaks, olive groves, fields and little white villages all the way down to the azure waters of the sea on the horizon. And of course vineyards! Federico Secondo – still greatly revered in Italy – was the Roman-German Emperor whose construction of the octagonal Castel del Monte still poses rather an enigma to mankind. Other mysteries in this area are the many different grapes which have had their home in the soil of this sun-soaked Mediterranean region for many centuries. The indigenous grapes of the Bel Paese region include varieties such as Uva di Troia, Bombino Nero, Pampanuto, Impigno, Negroamaro, Verdeca, Aleatico and Primitivo.

They can be found in 85 per cent of all vineyards. In all, Italy has over 400 different grapes, and the current trend goes clearly towards genuinità – grapes which are unique, authentic and inimitable. Apulia may serve as an example, representing numerous other regions. Yet no other region has such a wide diversity of different grapes. And, in a sense, Susumaniello may well sound like a symphony of the soil, gnarled vines, the sound of the sea and lots of history.

Original diversity

Following a long selection process, the varieties that have asserted themselves as superior in quality are grapes such as Nebbiolo and Arneis (Piemont), Lagrein (South Tyrol), Prosecco (Treviso), Ribolla (Friuli), Verdicchio (Ancona), Sagrantino (Montefalco), Piedirosso (Campania, Basilicata), Cannonau (Sardinia), Gaglioppo (Calabria), Nero d’Avola, Frappato, Nerello Mascalese, Inzolia and Cataratto (Sicily) as well as Fiano and Falanghina (Campania). One major reason why Italian wine is valued throughout the world is its original diversity, and in many countries it therefore comes right at the top of their import statistics. When trade visitors come to the stand of an Italian exhibitor at ProWein, they are keen to find something special and unmistakable, far away from mainstream Merlot, Chardonnay & Co. 1000 Italian wine producers are expected to come to the next trade fair from 24 to 26 March 2013.

The well-known Tuscan agronomist Stefano Chioccioli is firmly convinced that there are still numerous unknown Italian varieties that are capable of producing great wines. The only reason why they don’t exist just yet, he says, is “because the grapes were planted in the wrong places and have not been treated properly. Nobody believes in them.”
Photo: Castel del Monte in northern Apulia with its shroud of mystery.
Photo: Couple Spagnoletti Zeuli: „We believe in indigenous varieties..."
Photo: Negroamaro Bush Vines
Photo: Nero di Troia 2007
Photo: Olive harvest
Photo: Sebastiano de Corato with "Il Falcone".
Photo: Tenuta Rasciatano
Photo: Cantine Due Palme: some 7 million bottles per year.
Photo: Vintage in Rubino.
Photo: Harvest worker Tenuta Rubino.
Photo: Dario Cavallo with "Tretarante"

„We believe in indigenous varieties – after all, our ancestors were not stupid"

But let’s return to Apulia, the home of Federico Secondo, the Emperor from the Swabian House of Hohenstaufen, who built Castel Monte between 1240 and 1250, a castle whose purpose is just as mysterious as its enigmatic layout. Moreover, the area that can be seen from this vantage point is the home of one the most successful Apulian wines in the German market: the Castel del Monte Vigna Pedale from Torrevento. The type of grape for this wine – called Uva di Troia or Nero di Troia – is just as much shrouded in mystery as the nearby Stone Crown of Apulia. It is doubtful whether this grape really came from ancient Troy. More likely, it can be traced to the village of Troia near Foggia.

The thick-skinned grapes are small and produce a wine that is full of character, almost purple in colour, with a fragrance of violets and vanilla, lots of freshness and the aroma of cherries and prunes as well as a powerful, rustic structure and a high tannin content – just right for the simple, tasty food of Apulia, which was once reviled as a cucina povera, but is now praised by gourmets for its unique authenticity. If, say, you go out for dinner to Pietro Zito’s osteria, Antichi Sapori, you will not be served luxury products from far away but homegrown broad beans, wild onions, chicory, orechiette pasta made from roasted durum wheat or indeed burrata cheese and caciovallo (“kick from a horse”) – all at the highest quality.

The Nero di Troia grape has adapted to the hot summer temperatures of Murgia. Harvested at the Torrevento Vineyard, it usually only reaches maturity at the end of October. The organic enterprise, with grapes covering 200 hectares, belongs to the lawyer Francesco Liantonio, who owns another 200 hectares on the Salento peninsula. His Vigna Pedale has recently received the much coveted Tre Bicchieri (“Three Glasses”) six times in succession – a prize which is awarded for top-quality wines by the Italian wine guide Gambero Rosso. Nevertheless, it is sold for less than ten euros in Germany. This is quite a problem for many producers from the Mezzogiorno region, and wine expert Massimo di Bari says: “It is still incredibly difficult to sell wines from southern Italy at higher prices, whether in northern Italy or abroad.”
Photo: Sebastiano de Corato with "Il Falcone".
Yet he and other indigenous wine promoters are refusing to be discouraged. Not far from Andria, the de Corato family has run the vineyard since 1950. Unlike others in the region, their focus has been on bottled quality wine from the very beginning. In 1971 the de Coratos were the first ones to succeed in marketing a quality wine from their region: Il Falcone – clearly dedicated to Frederick the Second who was an expert falconer. By blending in 30 per cent Montepulciano, they smoothed down some of the rough edges of the Uva di Troia. The latter, says junior manager Sebastiano de Corato, “can never produce an ‘easy drinking’ wine, but that is precisely what makes this variety is so interesting!” The year 2000 was the first time that the family ventured to produce a pure-grade Nero di Troia, which they called Puer Apuliae (“child from Apulia”). This was the name given rather contemptuously to the 17-year-old Frederick by the German princes when he proposed to regain his father’s imperial crown. The wine has plenty of of character, and even after maturing for ten years it continues to have a delicate aroma, plenty of tannin, freshness and the fragrance of leather, tar, black olives and smoked ham.

Like the Vigna Pedale, the Puer Apuliae is a regular candidate for the Tre Bicchieri prize, awarded by Gambero Rosso. It clearly shows how much potential is lying dormant in southern Italy. “We believe in indigenous varieties – after all, our ancestors were not stupid,” says Conte Onofrio Spagnoletti Zeuli, who belongs to a noble family near Andria with a tradition of some 400 years behind them. The wines he grows are white Fiano (allegedly Frederick II’s favourite), Verdeca, Aglianico, Montepulciano and of course – as his crowning glory – a pure-grade Nero di Troia, called Terranera, which is his pride and joy. Like Conte Spagnoletti, the Porro family in nearby Barletta is far better known for its first-class olive oil than for its wine. However, in 2006, Gian Michele Porro, owner of the Rasciatano estate, gradually also began to make a name for himself as a quality wine producer, together with his wife Maria Luisa and his brother-in-law Ferdinando Cafiero. In 2007 their Nero di Troia even ascended to the heights of a Tre Bicchieri award. The debut of this newcomer was supported by wine expert Luigi Moio.
Photo: Harvest worker Tenuta Rubino.

Negroamaro and Primitivo: rich and high in alcohol

However, journeys of discovery in winemanship are worthwhile throughout the region, not just in the immediate vicinity of Frederick’s Castel Del Monte, and indeed for relatively little money. This is particularly true for the indigenous varieties Negroamaro and Primitivo which grow on the hot southern peninsula of Salento: lush red and rosé wines made from sumptuous berries, albeit with an alcohol content that is rarely below 14 per cent. As in so many cases, the origins of these two indigenous grapes are shrouded in the mystery of history. The Negroamara is said to have Greek roots, while the Primitivo may be related to a Croatian grape, Crlenjak, which found its way to southern Italy and eventually to California where it is now known as Zinfandel.

Numerous top-quality wines in Apulia have a similar level of concentration and alcohol content – for instance, a Primitivo di Manduria called Es from Gianfranco Fino, made from bush vines up to 80 years old, or the Primitivo Gioia del Colle from Filippo Cassano (available in three versions: 14, 16 and 17 per cent), or indeed the Negroamura called Patriglione from Cosimo Taurino. When it comes to large quantities, the amazing versatility of indigenous wines from southern Italy is demonstrated by various co-operatives, such as the Cantine Due Palme in Cellino San Marco – a multi-million enterprise that produces some 7 million bottles per year. The Apulia Best Wine Consortium, which was set up two years ago, comprises 26 export-focused enterprises. The consortium has set itself the aim of demonstrating to the outside world through presentations from Montreal to Hong Kong that there has been a quality revolution. Luigi Rubino, the chairman of the consortium, has been an exhibitor at ProWein for a number of years now: “Apulia has so many exciting wines made from indigenous grapes like virtually no other region in Italy or elsewhere. And this is gradually becoming common knowledge.”

Around Manduria, on the Ionian Sea, the Terra Rossa soil – so rich in ferric oxide – is relentlessly scorched by the summer sun. This is the place where a stubborn maverick called Dario Cavallo runs his wine-growing estate Mille Una, using ancient Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes with a very low yield and an alcohol content of over 18 per cent – a level that might almost justify calling it a concentrate. It’s a drop that doesn’t really fit into our day and age. But Cavalllo’s Tretarante has become such a landmark wine that it doesn’t need to fit in.

Thomas Brandl