PUGLIA: ITALIAN WINE OF SOIL, SAND AND SEA
Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere
LECCE, SALENTO ITALY—Streaking starlings fly in perfect formation, darting around the monuments and ruins that dominate this ancient city near the Adriatic Sea. Baroque castles and gothic cathedrals stand in bas relief against the copper light of dawn and a brilliant azure sky. This is the cobble stoned heart of Puglia, the rich wine growing region of Southeastern Italy. Surrounded on two sides by water; the Ionic and Adriatic Seas, it is in the “heel of the boot” and one of the most fertile growing regions in all of Europe. Olive trees, sweet herbs, cherry and apricot trees are liberally intermingled amongst the vineyards in happy cohabitation, their herbaceous and floral characteristics happily lending complexity to grape varieties with origins that harken back to the dawn of civilization.
“The soil is the soul of the wine,” proclaimed Vincenzo Verrastro, an agronomist and wine expert who is my guide through this rustic and achingly romantic region. “You see immediately the “black dust” underneath the red clay. Under that is a layer of limestone that gives the wine its minerality and complexity.”
Almost as a punctuation to his statement, winemaker Mariangela Plantamura rushed toward me with a handful of mint leaves and coriander blossoms so that I could smell the rich aromas that dominate the sensory landscape of the vineyards. “The presence of the flowers is a firm indication that everything we plant here is organic. The wines get their flavor and aroma from the soil and the plants that grow naturally here,” she said.
Neighboring winemaker Cassano Fiuppo of Polvanera winery agreed. “My wines, labeled 16 and 17, respectively, reflect the old vines and the land. You can taste and smell the “Black Dust” of the vineyard.”
The wines of Puglia are characterized by single vineyard designation and small production. “Quantity is the enemy of quality,” Verrastro declared. “Winemakers here in Puglia are scrupulous in keeping production down and training the vineyards so that the vines are stressed and the fruit is picked at its optimal level. For many years, there was a philosophy that quantity was the ambition. That attitude prevails no longer.”
A tasting of the wines of Puglia bore testimony to his assertions. “So many people are familiar with the wines of Tuscany, Piemonte, Venoto and Umbria to the north. We intend to make the world aware of the amazing quality that exists here in Puglia and the great value our wines represent,” he asserted.
The majority of wines from Puglia are excellently priced in relation to their quality Only a few of the best of the regions flagship wines approach the $80-$100 range. Most are priced at $12-$25 and offer comparatively high flavor and complexity for the money. The tour, aponsored under the banner of Puglia Best Wine and named Apulia Wine Identity, featured an accompanying food event called Apuia Opera Food, featuring a live, televised cooking demonstration featuring local chefs preparing recipes utilizing local specialties such as the region’s extraordinarily delicate cheeses, pungent herbs and abundant produce and outstanding locally cured hams and sausages. The live Cooking Show served as a showcase for the wines of Puglia.
-Lecce, Italy at dawn
-winemakers Mariangela Plantamura and Cassano Fiuppo
-the red clay and "Black Dust" of Puglia
-artichokes and other vegetables, herbs and fruit coexist with the vines
-agronomist and wine expert Vincenzo Verrastro
-Apulia Opera Food in action
A series of vineyard visits and formal tastings in the ensuring days featured one-on-one contact with the winemakers and private tasting sessions that allowed me and the other participants in Puglia Wine Identity to experience the wines in a variety of settings. The comprehensive experience confirmed my belief that wine is more than just a beverage. It is a way of life and a portal to culture and history that envelops the senses and enriches and enlivens the spirit.