A short trip to Puglia, in Italy’s extreme south-east, provided one of the most interesting experiences in this wine writer’s crowded year. The Mediterranean climate, coupled with a predominance of soil types suited to grape growing, has made the region a significant producer of wine. Close on half a million acres is dedicated to viticulture, split between wine and table grapes. Back in the 1980s, wine production reached nearly 350 million gallons. To put this in perspective, that’s over three times the current production of Chile.
In those days you wouldn’t have found a bottle of Puglian wine in your local wine merchants. Indeed very little was bottled at all. Some was sold at the cellar door. Some got distilled, or turned into grape concentrate to use for soil enrichment. Most was sent North for blending, chiefly into vermouth.
Our trip was based around the Torrevento winery, housed in a former monastery in the Castel del Monte area, north of Bari. There has been a good deal of investment in Torrevento, in shiny stainless steel tanks, expensive oak barrels and in technology. Torrevento has vineyards in other parts of Pugia and this is reflected in wines like Sine Nomine and Faneros, representing Salice Salentino in the far south of the province, made principally from a luxuriantly aromatic black grape called negroamaro. Another Puglian grape variety is bombino, a mispronunciation of which caused great hilarity over dinner when one of our number declared “I love pompino” – Italian for ‘blow job’! At lunch on the final day I enjoyed an invigorating easy-drinking young white wine, Pezzapiana, made from a blend of bombino bianco and pampanuto, another local hero.
We spent an afternoon picking grapes. It’s a backbreaking task, making you appreciate the efforts of the regulars. Even picking carefully, there still seemed an inordinate amount of leaf and stalk in my basket. To make an exceptional wine this has to be removed, calling for investment in either sorting by hand or expensive complex machinery. Another small reminder why good wine costs more.
On the final night we were subjected to a blending exercise. Blending wines is enormous fun, probably the most you can have with your clothes on; it certainly beats Scrabble, Trivvy and charades hands down. Over the years I’ve taken part in quite a few such exercises. I recall one where Phillip Laffer, at the time head winemaker of Orlando who make Jacob’s Creek, gave assorted wine scribes bottles of the Reserve Shiraz of the four consitutent parts – wines from MacLaren Vale, The Barossa, Padthaway and Langhorne Creek if I recall correctly, with instructions to replicate the finished article. I actually got it right first off but Phil snidely convinced me I was “nearly there” and so I starting fiddling with my blend and finished up further and further away. I remind him of this every time we meet, mainly because the prize for the winner was a case of top dollar shiraz and I was well miffed!
At Torrevento our task was to blend something potable from our choice of the four local wines they gave us. Steering a team of opinionated international wine writers in what you think is the right direction is no easy task. I had to summon up all my years of experience as a trade union official in a former life. Several times we reached a state of anarchy, chaos and instability comparable to the government of a bankrupt banana republic but eventually we pulled together and at the end of the night our wine was declared the gold medal winner.
I’d urge you, especially if you’ve never done it, to give blending a go. You’ll learn a lot about what makes wine tick and have bags of fun doing it. All you need is a few inexpensive bottles of single varietals – a cabernet sauvignon, a shiraz, a merlot will do nicely and a few pals to share the experience. A laboratory jar and a pipette would be handy – maybe ask the kids – but a kitchen measuring jug, marked in millilitres will do nicely, plus a plastic funnel and a few empty bottles to store your efforts . The smart thing is to make a ‘control wine’ first; one that everyone agrees is “almost there”. Keep this and test subsequent efforts against it.
The winery’s glory is the red Castel del Monte Riserva, Vigna Pedale, made 100% from Nero di Troia, a patrician grape that seemed destined for oblivion until rescued by Torrevento in the mid-nineties. We were given a vertical tasting (same wine, successive vintages) of Vigna Pedale and the gulf in class between 1996, the first and 2006, the latest, were very evident. In quality terms, Vigna Pedale is at least the equivalent of, say, a top notch Chianti Classico. With this rate of progress and (I’m going out on a limb here) it might soon be able to compete with some of the trendy much-trumpeted ‘Super Tuscans’, more affordable too. Certainly the soft tannins and the abundant fragrance of the nero di troia make Vigna Pedale easy to drink when still relatively young.
Alas, it’s not available here in Ireland as yet, though Torrevento are established in the UK. I’d love to see more Puglian wines in Ireland as the wines have real character, grapes employed are, for the most part, local and regional and make a refreshing change from ‘the usual suspects’. The region is currently undergoing a huge quality hike in pursuit of which which the Torrevento winery is in the van.
Punta Aquila primitivo 2007, a lovely Puglian red (recently ‘on special’ for €12.99, O’Brien’s) comes loaded with dark, opulent plums, with a hint of black pepper and spice on the back palate. With enough balancing acidity to prevent it being flabby and boring.