Where in the world can you be enjoying a delicious glass of red wine when an 86 year old local introduces himself to your group, starts serenading you with local traditional songs and then insists on dancing with everyone in the party – well the ladies anyway? Puglia of course! A region where complete strangers will still come up and talk to you (in a mixture of Italian and local dialect) about the area, its history and traditions. The only surprise was that this gentleman didn’t invite us all back to his house to meet his family!! A truly Puglian end to a great day exploring this region!
Our tour departed from Masseria Giulio and took our guests on a pleasant route through Puglia’s beautiful countryside dominated by olive groves and vineyards. Having skirted the medieval towns of Francavilla Fontana and Oria, we arrived at our first stop in Manduria – the home of the famous Primitivo di Manduria grape. Our destination was the city’s Consorzio Produttori Vini, one of the oldest wine co-operatives in Puglia dating back to 1928 (officially taking the CP Vini name in 1932). Here we experienced a fascinating tour of the museum dedicated to the history of the co-operative and rural / agricultural Puglian life over the centuries. The exhibitions are laid out below the floor of the main building in what used to be the concrete cellars where the wine was stored before being sent to Northern Italy and France for “blending” into their wines to add colour, taste and alcohol (due to the hot Puglian climate most local wines are around 13-15%). As you wander around the rooms stained a deep purple by years of storing wine, you can still smell the aromas of dark fruit – although it is slightly odd seeing 12 people sniffing the walls! After the tour of the museum we were able to taste four of the co-operatives wines. We started with Amoroso, a rosato (rose) wine made from the primitive grape which positively oozed strawberries. We then moved on to Abatemasi which is a new label and is made from grapes that are right on the edge of the primitivo region. It is a pretty special way to introduce people to Puglian red wine! Next up was Elegia which I have to say is my favourite wine produced by the co-operative (even better in my opinion than their flagship Sonetto wine) which is quite simply stunning. We finished with Madrigale which is a naturally sweet primitivo that went superbly with the almond paste biscuits / sweets (freshly delivered from a local bakery) that it was served with.
Having loaded our coach up with as much wine as our guests could carry, we headed off to our second destination. Located almost within sight of the Ionian Sea, Trullo di Pezzo is a relatively new family run vineyard which started in 1998 producing wine for blending elsewhere. It is now run by two sisters, Simona and Marika, who have started to build their own premium brand of organic wines using local grape varieties. We were escorted on a tour of the estate by the ever enthusiastic Valentina and Simona’s husband Piero. Val and I love this place and so we were delighted to see the impression it made on our guests too! After the tour we sat down in the beautiful tasting room to sample some of the wines over an incredible lunch featuring local cheeses, taralli, olives, homemade vegetable dishes (prepared using organic vegetables grown by the family and their own organic extra virgin olive oil) and fish caught again by the family. However, at the risk of starting a family feud – the winner for me was mamma’s apricot tart – words are failing me it was so good! The first wine we tasted was 10 Grana – a delicious white made from fiano grapes which smells of freshly cut grass and I thought had a slight taste of kiwi fruit. This was followed by Mezza Pezza made from primitivo grapes (primitivo gets its name from the fact that it is one of the first grape varieties to mature and be harvested – starting from as early as mid-August) which is my personal favourite. We finished with Scarfoglio made from aglianico grapes which has a nice spicy undertone. I think we could easily have spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the company of the family but we had a schedule to keep!
Our final stop of the tour was Cantine San Marzano, another co-operative that started in 1962 with just 19 members from local wine making families. Today it has over 1,200 members and is one of the largest wine making concerns in Puglia. However, quantity does definitely not trump quality and San Marzano is renowned for producing some excellent wines that have won multiple awards – including the prized Tre Bicchieri from Gambero Rosso (which in 2015 was only awarded to 421 wines in the whole of Italy). During our tour of the cantine I was struck mainly by two things: (1) the size of the aluminium vats used for storing the wine – apparently the only way they could be transported from where they were made in Northern Italy was by helicopter! and (2) how young most of the staff on site seemed to be – which is hopefully really good news for the local economy and the future of wine making in the region. Our tasting started with Talo Verdeca which was big on vanilla and split opinion within our group. We followed this with Estella Moscato which had a lovely smell of tropical fruit, especially pineapple. Next up were the primitivo wines – first up was Talo Primitivo (which is the Tre Bicchieri winner) which was followed by the Il Pumo label. Again opinion amongst our group was split almost 50/50 between the two with some preferring a slightly rounder finish and others the slightly more “rustic” taste of the latter. Finally, I was allowed a quick taste of the Talo Negroamaro and I have to say that for me that was the winner! However, our day was yet to end as this was when the gentleman mentioned at the start of this piece made his entrance and gave us one last fantastic memory to look back on with a happy smile.