OK after gushing over Puglia and its people, finally I get to talking about their wines, if not in a rather lengthy, list-y kind of way (a warning: this post may be of interest to only the geekiest of wine geeks, but I think it only fair to give the best winemakers due credit, and to give you some recommendations, should you ever visit Puglia or want buy any of their wines).
A sea of glasses ready for the morning’s judging
Here’s a refresher: I recently spent three days in Monopoli on Italy’s ‘heel’, as a judge for Radici’s Festival dei Vitigni Autoctoni (aka the Festival of Puglia’s Native Grapes). There were two judging panels, 14 of us ‘wine journalists’, and 14 ‘wine lovers’ who were mostly local restaurant owners.
First, a disclaimer. We judges each tasted about 250 wines in total. The wines were arranged by grape variety and tasted in ‘flights’, usually about 20 at a time. I found I had no problem tasting the whites and rosés in this manner because they were wines that were splendidly easy to drink on their own. However this blind line up style of judging seemed unfair to the reds. This is because most reds are better with food and often need time to ‘breathe’ to open up and express their true character. It’s also because many of them will improve with age and we were tasting young wines and assessing them solely on how they were on that day alone. So when tasting reds by themselves one after another, it is hard to get an honest assessment of the wines. Especially in a particularly poor flight. You can imagine how some very well made wines, if stuck in a row of bad wines, could unintentionally get lost in the crowd. That said, blind tastings are a bit like the process of auditioning for a part in a play. It’s not best method to showcase talent, but there’s so far been no alternative that works as efficiently. And so we’re stuck with it.
Photo by Whitney Adams
OK ok, onto the wines. First the whites. Whites usually take the supporting role when it comes to Puglian wines, so I was pleased to discover what I thought were some of the best wines of the competition in this category.
Bombino Bianco is the most planted white grape in Puglia but I found it pretty forgettable as a variety. In the mixed whites we tasted several pleasant Malvasia Bianca. The first prize from the ‘journalists group’ went to ‘Maviglia’ 2008 from Milleuna which was thankfully also a high scorer for me. Like several others it was yeasty on the nose, but also slightly honeyed, high in alcohol (15%!), with a slight bitter finish. I scored Vigne di Rasciatano’s 2009 a bit better as I thought it has a cleaner finish and was more restrained alcohol-wise (at 12.5%). But the highest scorers for me in the mixed whites were wines made from the Greco grape variety (a few blended with Fiano and Malvasia). This is a grape I have loved and appreciated from the Campania region, and found almost equally as enjoyable in Puglia, however different it was. My notes on these wines varied from ‘tropical fruits’ to ‘banana chips’ to ‘Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal’ to ‘peachy’. I gave a generous score to ‘Hirondelle’ 2009 from Torre Quarto although it didn’t pick up any awards sadly. I felt that the Fianos were disappointing and not nearly as delicate, floral, or subtle as their Campanian (particularly in Avellino) counterparts. However, several of the Fiano Minutolo, a strain of the same grape but quite different in flavour, were quite surprisingly delicious. My highest score was given to the wine that won not only the category but the overall ‘Premi Vini Biologici’ and that was ‘Auva’ 2009 from Polvanera. It was headily aromatic with tangerine and peach, nice acidity, and a bitter finish. Yum.
Now onto the Rosés: We tried rosés made from Bombino Nero, Montepulciano, Nero di Troia, and Primitivo. Overall I seemed to rate the Primitivo rosés the highest as they had the best balance of fruit and acidity. My winner, receiving second prize from the journalists’ group, was ‘Petrarosa’ 2009 from Albea. Also scoring high with me was the ‘GiuliaRosé’ from Azienda Settimio Passalacqua.
I’ll also share with you (because it gives me a giggle) that for A Mano’s (a big exporter) rosato, my friend Whitney and I both found Fruit Loops’! Seriously, it was like someone fermented and liquidised the children’s cereal. Weird but strangely comforting.
Anyway, I digress. Moving onto the reds
This was a much bigger category as you can imagine. We tried wines made from Negroamaro, Bombino Nero, Montepulciano, Nero di Troia, Primitivo, Aglianico, and yes that forever fun to say Susumaniello.
I got a little lazy with my notes at this point and just copied scores into my pad so apologies but I’m just laundry listing now. Scoring high with the Nero di Troia (a grape variety found north of Bari and important in the Castel del Monte DOC) was the ‘Petrigama’ 2008 from Azienda Agricolo Tarantini. But not far behind was the winner of the judges’ group, a 2007 from Botromagno. Big, gutsy Negroamaro, found in its best expression on the peninsula of Salento, also scored high with me. My highest points went to ‘Magrede’ 2005 from Dei Agre, and close behind were the winners of the whole competition, ‘Terragnolo’ 2004 from Apollonio, and in third, ‘Nerio’ 2005 from Schola Sarmenti. However I thought it was unfair to judge the ’09 and ’08 Negroamaro in the same boat as the ’04,’05, and ’06. One of my top scores of the competition was in the mixed category and received second from the judges group, and that was the Malvasia Nera 2009 from Botrugno.
One of the strongest varieties in the reds was the broody, intense Aglianico which actually comes from Puglia’s neighbour, Basilicata. One of my favourites, which also took second overall, was the ‘Grifalco’ 2007 from Lucania sas, and also a 2007 from Macarico.
Now onto the Primitivo. To be honest, with a few exceptions, this was a disappointing lot. I found them (and this was a problem with many of the wines) to be overoaked and baked (and so darn high in alcohol—some as high as 16%!). Primitivo is a hard grape for me to like as it’s just so naturally low in acidity, I found myself desperately wanting something refreshing. Beer please?! Some exceptions: ‘Primitivo di Manduria’ 2008 Pirro Varone, and ‘Fior di Vigna’ 2008 from Paulo Leo.
That said, we spent the longest bus ride known to man (let’s just say the driver was ‘directionally challenged’) to visit some Primitivo vineyards in Manduria. We met Aussie winemaker Lisa Gilbee from the small, boutique winery Morella, and she showed us her Biodynamic vineyards full of 60+ year old bush vines. Down the road and in completely different soil were Luca Attanasio’s Primitivo bush vines. We learned about the winemakers themselves, their families, and the love and expression that went into their wines. That evening when we (finally) dined at a local restaurant and did a vertical tasting of wines from Morella and Attanasio dating back to 2000, the wines were splendid. Some were meant for ageing and showed great potential, and some of the older wines were (for once!) centred on the fruit and not baked to a crisp. Both of these winemakers had entered a vintage of their wine into the Festival but neither placed.
Photo by Whitney Adams
It was a good example of the flawed system of blind tastings. Because the more you learn about the people, the land, and the craftsmanship behind the wine, you can’t help but get more enjoyment out of it. Also, with time to really ponder over the wines, to let them breath, and to try them with several foods, a much fairer assessment was made.
Unfortunately we would’ve been there for weeks if we tried each wine in the competition this way. But hey, an extra few weeks in this beautiful part of the world? I wouldn’t say no!