Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere
CASTEL DEL MONTE, Puglia--"Our main goal is the recovery of indigenous grape varietals and the creation of affordable and drinkable wines from those grapes." Those were the emphatic words of Andrea Fabiano, export department manager for Torrevento winery, one of the leaders in the rebirth of Puglia's wine industry.
Situated in a 17th century monastery in the shadow of Castel del Monte, the winery is as embedded in the rocks that comprise the walls of its picturesque barrel cellars, as it is forged in the new era of winemaking that is propelling the wines and cuisine of Puglia around the world.
High above the winery is the Castel del Monte, the architectural octagonal jewel built by Federico II of Sveva. The true purpose behind the origin of the castle remains a mystery. Was it built as a true castle or as an instrument of magic? Federico, born in the 12th century to a papal family, lived a life beset by political turmoil. After both of his parents died at an early age, Federico was left in the care of a family which did not share a devotion to the papacy. Federico began to develop ties to Islamic beliefs. Later in life, as the Crusades began mounting their drum call among the Templar Knights in their stronghold in the Puglia region, Federico signed a treaty with the Arab Sheiks, in which he vowed not to kill them. This angered the Holy Roman Church and Federico was excommunicated. Building the octagonal fortress high above the region, and facing the city of Andria, where he was received as an emperor, this would become his sanctuary. He surrounded himself with the artists, thinkers and mystics of his time, all the while keeping a watchful eye on his papal enemies while in the company of his loyal Muslim warriors.
This and other tales of Terra di Federico were spun over a spectacular lunch of local delicacies prepared by Torrevento's culinary team, while members of the wine media and wine trade enjoyed an expansive tasting of Torrevento's delicious wines.
The buffet luncheon featured such local delicacies as an assortment of cheeses, including Mozzarella Twist, Caciocavallo and Primosale cheeses, followed by an assortment of charcuterie. Sliced eggplant rolls, Scapece's Zucchini, Potatoes and Pepper "M'pacchiuse," accompanied by a Gratin of Mushrooms and "Cardoncelli" and Meat Balls. The chef personally prepared a trio of specialties as the luncheon party arrived; "Orecchiette" pasta with Turnip Tops and Little Sausages with White Wine and Mushrooms with Chicory and Pecorino Cheese. The show stopping delicacy was his Chicory and Fava Beans Mushed, which he could be observed personally stirring to a smooth consistency prior to serving, as the crystalline wines were being poured.
The natural flavors of the food were enhanced by the use of fresh herbs and vegetables, gathered from the surrounding land, where olive trees and superb olive oil production are as much a part of tradition as the art of winemaking.
MareMosso Puglia IGT, a crisp, delicate, low-in-alcohol (10.5%), white wine, made from 100% indigenous Bombino blanco grapes, was the first to be poured. This is an excellent wine for drinking as an aperitif or with a first course of grilled vegetables, fresh fish and cheeses, as it pretty much was here. The easy-drinking style of the wine, which can be drunk young, makes it a versatile companion at lunch. Its fine, delicate bouquet and hints of white flowers and light, fruity notes made it a perfect way to open up the palate and get it ready for a sumptuous meal!
I then tasted what quickly became my favorite wine of the first 48 hours of my trip to Puglia, the Vigna Pedale, Castel del Monte DOC Riserva, a beautifully structured, Ruby red beauty made with 100% Nero di Troia indigenous grapes. The wine is lush and elegant, with Garnet jeweled inflections glinting from the glass. A bright acidity with an intense nose of crushed red roses and a mouthful of ripe red raspberries and ripe plums followed by a hint of cardamum and dried sage and bay laurel. This is a classic red wine that loves the fresh meats of the season and a groaning board of local cheeses, which were so richly provided by our hosts at Torrevento. It made the trek up the mountain to Castel del Monte seem like a flight on Gossamer wings!