Although I’ve enjoyed multiple trips to Italy during the past 30 years, I hadn’t made it to Puglia until a year and a half ago. It is a ruggedly beautiful area with beaches on clear blue water, dramatic underground caves, acres and acres of gnarled, centuries-old olive trees and blindingly white villages perched on hillsides. I marvel that it has taken me so long to get to such a beautiful and historic place. My latest trip was to serve as a judge at Radici del Sud, which just took place in the medieval castle of Sannicandro in Bari, the capital of Puglia.
This is the thirteenth year for Radici del Sud, or Roots of the South, a private judging and public exhibition of wines from southern Italy including Puglia, Calabria, Campania, Sicily and Basilicata. With a few exceptions, wines from these provinces don’t have the name recognition of wines from areas like Tuscany and Piemonte, and that is what this event is aiming to change. In other words, the purpose of Radici del Sud is to increase awareness of wines of the South. At the awards ceremony, several of the speakers noted that the program is reaching its goal, showing an increase in wine quality, media recognition and tourism, particularly over the past five years.
To get us into a southern Italian state of mind, the evening before the judging began, the judges tasted six Sertura, Greco di Tufo DOCG vintages 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 with agronomist Giancarlo Barbieri. He has been helping others in their vineyards for years and decided it was time to create his own. His focus is on the character of the grape, both in the vineyards and the winery. That focus was clear in the wines he shared with us. It was an amazing opportunity to see the evolution of the wine.
The 2017 was a barrel sample with dusty mineral aromas and rich, round, citrusy, fruit and salty flavors. It was an intense wine with a long, mouthcoating finish. I loved the juxtaposition of ripe fruit and saltiness. The 2016 is the current vintage, showing more subtle aromas and elegance in the mouth. The citrus fruit, acidity and salty mineral character were more conjoined. Barbieri noted that the 2015 vintage, his first official vintage, was a very good one. The aromas seemed more preserved than fresh, but in the mouth, it was beautiful, more integrated. He said it was “the best example of savory character.” The 2014, which Barbieri said was difficult and required careful selection of grapes, showed floral, almost herbal notes in the citrusy fruit and a mouthcoating finish. The 2013 was beginning to show all the elements coming together and the 2009, truly a garage wine, showed just how harmonious and balanced this wine can be with notes of honey and candied fruit balanced with savory, salty flavors.
The next day-and-a-half, the judges who came from Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the U.S. separated into two panels, each comprised of media and buyers, who were simultaneously tasting the same wines.
My panel of eight judges, half from Italy and half from the U.S., tasted wines made from Aglianico, Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, Grillo, Fiano, Malvasia and Primitivo among others. It took us a few flights of wines to come together as a panel. We wrestled with language and Old World vs. New World palate differences in addition to a new criterion for evaluating the wines. We were asked to consider “typicity,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “the quality or fact of a wine being typical of its geographical provenance and of the grape variety (or varieties) from which it is made.” We Americans were somewhat uncomfortable with being able to appropriately appraise this characteristic since many of these wines are not available in the U.S. The Italians, I’m sure, felt uncomfortable having to speak English. The first flight of wines highlighted our differences: The Americans loved them, but the Italians did not. Fortunately, after a few flights of wines and vigorous discussions we began to work as a team.
After the judging we drove south to visit a few wineries. At the Severino Garofano Vigneti e Cantine we tasted six vintages of their Salento IGP Rosato Girofle Negroamaro. It is not a pink and pretty wine. As my colleague Cathy Van Zyl, MW said “It’s a rosé for grownups.” It bears a distinctive color, which, “comes from the Negroamaro grape, according Stefano Garofolo. “It’s a different color than other varieties. It’s an intense bright orange color; a brightness that each vintage is able to retain. It is a character of the grape, not a fault.”
Then there are the flavors that are not juicy-fruity, but savory and spicy with descriptors from my notes like coriander, Dijon mustard, lime zest, with Mediterranean herbs fresh in the younger wines, and drying with the age of the wines. The structure includes high acidity and the scratchiness of skin contact, and it remains constant through the ages. These are not sipping-by-the-pool wines, but rather ones that belong on the table.
We visited Claudio Quarta who was trained as a biologist and has a Ph.D. in genetics. He started a biotech company, successfully merging with a California biotech. The company lost its luster after the market fallout from 9-11, so Quarta decided to take a new direction. He had tasted wines from around the world that “all tasted the same.” So, he returned to Italy to make wines that speak of their origins rather than. He chose Puglia’s Salento peninsula, the heel of Italy’s boot, for his first project to grow Primitivo and Negroamaro. He saw it as a great place for growing grapes because of the climate and soils. However, he also loves white wines, so he chose Campania, with its volcanic soils and breezes, for Falangina and Greco di Tufo. His third winery is for making Salice Salentino DOC: one wine, one vineyard. He said, “This is the project: Three wineries to make wines speaking of the territory, the true culture and expertise of the territory.”
Cantine San Marzano is a cooperative winery with 1480 plus acres of vineyards and 200 grower members, many of whom own less than two-and-a-half acres. It is in the middle of the Primitivo di Manduria appellation. Mauro di Maggio who is managing director reminded us that the co-op structure is important to the survival of the small grower. He showed us the lovely Tra Ma Ri Rosé di Primitivo 2017 with its light salmon pink color, round, fresh strawberry fruit with hints of fresh herbs and balancing acidity. The Primitivo di Manduria DOCG Dolci Naturel 2015 really stood out to me because of the balance between the sweetness and zesty acidity. It actually tasted less sweet than dry Primitivo.
I left Puglia with a greater appreciation of the diversity of distinctive grape varieties and their wines. It was encouraging to see the many wine producers, marketers, writers, educators and government officials working together to recognize and appreciate the best wines of southern Italy. We experienced excellent wines that spoke eloquently of their native grapes and soils to those only a mother could love and many quality levels in between. We noted that nearly all the organic wines showed well, suggesting meticulous attention to the vineyards and gentle techniques in the winery. If, as was noted earlier, the efforts of the Radici del Sud program have shown progress over the past five years as evidenced in an increase in wine quality, media recognition and tourism, I can’t wait to see what happens over the next five years.