Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Cantina Albea – A Friendly and Delicious Wine Tourism Experience in Puglia

(May 2016) On the afternoon of our first day in Puglia, we were scheduled to visit Cantina Albea  - a small winery located in the town of Alberobello, and just a short walk from our hotel. We were greeted by Tommaso Marangi, who has a contagious smile and exhibits much passion for wine and Puglia. He gave us a tour of their fascinating museum, explained the wine making process, and then allowed us to taste several wines.

About Cantina Albea Winery

Located close to the Locorotondo DOC, Cantina Albea focuses on grape varietals from this region, such as Verdeca and Bianco d’ Alessano, but also purchases other grapes from nearby areas, such as Fiano and Nero de Troia. They own 52 hectares of vineyards and produce around 20,000 cases annually.  Due to their location in a prime tourist town, they receive anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 visitors per year, and therefore are able to sell 30% of production direct to consumers (DTC).

Our Tasting in the Cellars of Cantina Albea

Museum and Gas Station Wine Pump at Cantina Albea

Tommaso gave us a tour of their fascinating wine museum, with an excellent explanation of Puglia wines and the surrounding regions, as well as an exhibit of old and new winemaking equipment.

We were mesmerized by the gas station style wine pumps, which allow customers to “pump” their own bulk wine from a gas station style hose into a recyclable plastic wine container (See photo). This is not something we see in the US, but my students were excited about trying to import the custom.

Using "gas station style hose" to fill wine jug

Tasting of Four Cantina Albea Wines

With his sommelier training, Tommaso did an excellent job in presenting four wines and explaining with much enthusiasm and waving of arms, the special attributes of the wine.  We enjoyed his presentation while seated in the wine cellar at long tables with complementary local snacks.  The wines were all well made and included:

Tommaso Presenting the Wines of Cantina Albea

2014 Petrarosa Special Cuvee Rose of Primitivo – an easy drinking rose with strawberry jam notes, having spent six hours on the skin.  In the US, we would have called this a “white zinfandel” in the past.  However, since white zin is no longer selling well, labeling it a “rose” makes more economic sense.

2015 Il Selva DOC Locorotondo – a white wine made with 60% Verdeca, 35% Bianco d’ Alessano, and 5% Fiano.  Delightful floral nose, light to medium body, with medium-high acid. Very refreshing with mineral notes

2013 Terre del Sole Primitivo – a cheerful Primitivo with classic jammy notes, spice and an earthy after taste.  Approachable with moderate tannins

**2011 Lui 100% Nero de Troia – this was one of my favorite wines on the complete 12 day trip to Southern Italy.  Made of 100% Nero de Troia, it opened with blackberry and soft herb notes, then caressed the palate with velvety tannins and a long elegant finish.  Aged 8 months in oak and 7 in bottle before release.  Won multiple awards.  A grape we rarely see in the US, Nero de Troia, meaning “black of Troy,” was apparently brought from Homer’s ancient city of Troy (now in Albania) to the Puglia region of Italy.

Another reason to visit the enchanting village of Alberobello is the opportunity to visit the friendly and delicious cellars of Cantina Albea.

Having Fun in the Cantina Albea Museum

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Overview of Puglia Wine Region

(May 2016) Driving from the hills of Campania to the flat dry plains of Puglia illustrated the strong difference between these two famous wine regions of Southern Italy.  However, even though they are very different in landscape and grape varietals, it only took us two hours to drive from Benevento to Alberobello, the ancient and charming town we stayed in for our two days in Puglia.  Alberobello is a Unesco World Heritage site because of its unusual “trulli” architecture – tiny conical shaped houses made of stone.

Truilli Architecture in Alberobello, Puglia

The Unique Beauty of Puglia’s Landscape and Climate

Despite its relatively flat landscape, Puglia has other aspects that make it beautiful.  A major one is the thousands of century old olive trees that dot the landscape, along with red poppies, large yellow hay bales, and flowering cactus. Puglia is also blessed with 800 kilometers of seaside, and we could usually see the blue shining Adriatic in the distance.  Just short distances across the water are Croatia, Greece, and Albania – the source of two of Puglia’s signature red grapes.

Beautiful Landscape of Puglia

The major city is Bari, which I have visited previously (see post), but this time we stayed to the south of Bari, closer to the most famous wine regions. The soil of Puglia is a mixture of sand, limestone (which you can easily see in the fields), and red volcanic mix. The climate is hot and sunny, and Puglia has long been known as Italy’s breadbasket because it produces much of the wheat, olive oil, and grapes. Puglia is also the birthplace of the delicious soft cheese called "Burrata".

Famous Burrata Cheese of Puglia

Signature Grapes of Puglia

Due to Puglia’s hot and sunny climate, it is primarily known for red wine, but they also produce delicious roses and a few good whites, mainly from the Verdeca grape.  Puglia’s three signature red grapes are:

1) Primitivo – a clone of zinfandel with the same jammy, berry, peppery notes, but often with a more earthy and rustic quality. Aged in both French and American oak. Alcohol levels are generally around 14.5%, but can get up as high a 18%, we were told.  The best wines are often from the region of Manduria, which is considered to be the home of Primitive in Italy. Primitivo is said to have came to Puglia from Croatia.

2) Negroamaro – means “black bitter,” and has markers of wild cherry, tobacco, and herbs.  The grape has very high tannins, and a naturally high acid. Color ranges from dark ruby to opaque black. It is often blended, because on its own it can taste harsh and bitter. Negroamaro tolerates heat and drought well.  It is considered to produce one of the healthiest red wines, because it has high levels of resveratrol.  The best wines are often from the region of Salice Salentino near the ancient city of Lecce.

3) Nero de Troia – meaning “Black of Troy”, this is an ancient grape that is reputed to have come to Puglia from Homer’s city of Troy, which is located in present day Albania just across the Adriatic. This is one of my favorite varietals in Puglia, because it often produces more elegant red wines with black plum, violets and earth. It has softer tannins, but can be astringent on the palate.  For this reason it is often blended, but we found some delightful versions that were 100% Nero de Troia, such as Lui produced by Cantina Albea Winery in the town of Alberobello.

We found rose wines produced from all three of the signature red grapes described above, and I thought the Negroamaro roses were quite good because they had crisp acids.  Bombino Nero is another local grape that is often used for rose wine.  It is fruity and approachable, and therefore quite good for this purpose, though it is possible to find 100% red versions as well as red blends of Bombino Nero.  In terms of white, the Verdeca grape produces some of the best we tasted. They also produce wines from Fiano and Bianco d’ Alessano in Puglia – both of which are often blended with Verdeca.

Some Wines from Puglia

Puglia’s Ancient Trellis System and DOCGs

One of the most impressive features of Puglia was the many ancient vineyards of head-pruned vines.  They sprawled across the landscape with black octopus tentacles.  In Southern Italy, they call this type of trellis system “alberello”, which means “small tree.”  They also have newer vineyards on VSP with black irrigation drip hoses.  However, if the vineyard is designated for DOC or DOCG (DOP) wines, then they must obtain permission to water.

Poster of Old Vine Zinfandel in Puglia

Puglia currently has 4 DOCGs.  They are:

  1. Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale – focusing on sweet wines made from the Primitivo grape in the Manduria region
  2. Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Reserva – focusing on the Nero di Troia grape
  3. Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva – also focusing on the Nero di  Troia grape, but as a blend
  4. Castel del Monte Bombino Nero – focusing on the Bombino Nero grape

We were surprised to find there are currently no DOCGs for Negroamaro or dry Primitivo, but hopefully these will come in the future.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Cultural Sites of Campania: Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast

(May 2016) During our two-day visit to Campania, we stayed in the town of Benevento.  This town is in the heart of wine region, and is very Italian with few tourists. I think we may have been the only Americans in town. At most of the restaurants, they only spoke Italian. However, everyone was very friendly, the prices were inexpensive, and the old quarter of town was charming.

Wine and Home Cooked Food at Mama Nunzio's

Nice Hotel and Excellent Home-Cooked Italian Food in Benevento

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Italiano. The staff here was very welcoming and helpful. The rooms were fine, and I was given a corner room with a big bathtub.  The room key was huge, so I made sure to drop it off at the front desk each time I left. Breakfast service included a large pot of real coffee, and some cheeses and meats to go along with the pastries.

They hotel staff gave us good recommendations for dinner and we ended up at Restaurant Nunzio – a great place in the old town, only ten minutes walk from the hotel. Mama Nunzio recited the menu of the day to us in Italian, while son, Antonio, translated. All of the food was fresh, homemade and plentiful. We also ordered 4 bottles of wine and had a local lemon liquor (not lemoncello) for dessert.  This restaurant was one of the best dining experiences of our trip.

A Hug from Mama Nunzio

The next night we ate at another great Italian restaurant called Trattoria dei Sapori di UcciAssunta, recommended by our guide, Lorenzo.  This place was charming with excellent home cooked food and very inexpensive prices.  For example, we had a glance of local Aglianico wine for only one euro, and a ¼ liter of Fallaghina for two euros! The only problem is they spoke absolutely no English, so we had to use our phones to translate the menu – which again was only verbal.  We had to ask the server to write out the words, so we could look them up and see what to eat.

Special Lemon and Herb Liquor from Benevento

Visit to Pompeii

We drove to Pompeii from Benevento in a little over an hour. There we had a guided walking tour of the ruins. I was amazed at how large the ancient city was – spanning over 80 square miles, we were told.  We walked amongst the huge cobble-stoned roads, viewed the crumbling columns, saw the ancient brothel, and felt sad at the volcanic remains of the dog, child, and old man.

At the Ruins of Pompeii

The Amalfi Coast and Positano

After a quick pizza lunch at one of the many cafes outside Pompeii and some shopping, we boarded the bus to drive along the complete Amalfi Coast.  It was breathtaking, but a little frightening at times, with the very narrow twisting roads.  The cliffs plunged steeply to the blue ocean below, and tiny villages nestled along even tinier beaches. The steep hills above us were crowded with lemon trees to make the famed lemoncello of the region, which actually has its own DOCG – Lemoncello di Amalfi.

Driving Along the Steep Amalfi Coast

We stopped at the Positano overlook to take photos and enjoy a refreshing iced lemon drink, and then again at one of the many pottery stores along the way. Eventually we reached the town of Amalfi, which is larger than the others and has a big beach. Half of our group immediately donned bathing suits to go swimming, while others waded, and then went shopping.  It is an adorable town with many shops, restaurants, colorful flowers, and lemoncello everywhere.  Of course, we had to stop in a beachside cafĂ© and have a chilled lemoncello. 

Shops in Amalfi - Featuring Lemons

Our day of cultural sites in Campania was one that many people on our trip enjoyed very much, and it allowed us to appreciate the wines of the region even more.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Queen of Campania Wine

(May 2016) Milena Pepe, CEO of Tenuta Cavelier Pepe, swept across the front porch of her winery to greet us with open arms and a huge Italian welcome. The winery, located in the rolling hills of Campania, looked like a small palace with tall white pillars along the front and the vineyards beyond. Milena beckoned us to line up on the porch for a photo, and then for the next two hours, she proceeded to dazzle, delight, and inform us about the unique wines of Campania and the many indigenous grape varieties she is using at her estate.

Visit to Tenuta Cavalier Pepe Winery in Campania, Italy

We arrived at Tenuta Cavalier Pepe in the afternoon. Piero Mastroberardino recommended that we visit the estate because it was only a 30-minute drive from his winery, and he thought we would enjoy visiting a vineyard in the country. He was right, as the drive was breathtaking with green hills covered with vineyards, olive orchards, and red poppies. The sky was a soft blue, and the craggy mountains and cliffs that surrounded the gently rolling hills reminded me of Piedmont. Every so often we passed a tiny village nestled in a valley.

The Beautiful Rolling Hills and Vineyards of Campania

About Milena Pepe and Tenuta Cavelier Pepe

After greeting us, Milena escorted us to an aglianico and falaghina vineyard, describing the natural viticulture processes, and stressing how important it is to be able to taste the authenticity of the land in the bottle. She explained that her father was Italian and had owned the vineyards for years, but had traveled to Belgium where he had met Milena’s mother and stayed there. Therefore, Milena grew up in both Belgium and Italy, and eventually, in 2005, decided to stay in Campania and start a winery.

Visiting with Milena Pepe (pictured 2nd from the right with pearls)

She studied winemaking in France, and then began construction of the large and impressive winery with its beautiful tasting room. Further up the hill, she also built a restaurant and a small resort hotel. Today the winery produces 300,000 bottles from 50 hectares of vineyards.  She oversees 18 employees, and is very well connected in Campania.  In fact, she is also the president of the Campania DOCG Consortium, is married, and has two small children. In our short time with her, we came to realize that she is passionate, very extroverted, brilliant, and stressed from too much work.

Milena built the wine brand of Tenuta Cavelier Pepe from scratch, focusing on local indigenous variatals such as aglianico, fiano, greco, falanghina, and the rare copa di volpa grape.  She oversees all of the marketing, public relations, and social media campaigns as well. Her efforts have paid off, because today she exports 50% of her production to 25 countries.

Tasting the Wines of Tenuta Cavelier Pepe

We were invited to a seated tasting seminar where we were treated to seven very distinctive and memorable wines.  Some of my favorites included:

Tasting Seminar at Tenuta Cavalier Pepe

2015 Tenuta Cavalier Pepe Refiano, Fiano di Avellino – delightful fresh floral nose, light body medium-high acid and a distinctive sage note on the finish. Very enjoyable.  (Note: Milena also allowed us to taste her fiano that had been heavily oaked.  Apparently it has created much controversy in the Campania wine industry.  It was a very “unusual beast.”)

2015 Tenuta Cavalier Pepe Coda di Volpe– a very unique white wine named after the “tail of the fox,” due to the very long grape clusters it creates (see photo).  The nose was a subdued almond and lemon, which followed through on the palate with some hay and herbal notes. Medium bodied with medium acid and very textured on the palate. 

The Long "Fox Tail" Shape of Code di Volpe. Photo Credit: Alexis Kreyder

2010 Tenute Cavalier Pepe Opera DOCG Taurasi (Aglianico) – this was my favorite of the tasting. A beautiful aglianico with classic notes of earth, dried cherry and spice. Lots of pepper on palate with huge tannins, and a very long finish. Amazing!

2009 Tenute Cavalier Pepe La Loggia Del Cavaliere Reserva Riserva, Taurasi (Aglianico) –Very decadent and international in style, but still extremely appealing. Oozing gobs of expensive French oak on the nose with cedar, tobacco and spice.  On the palate the black dried fruit and tar of aglianico showed through with more spice and herbs. Extremely concentrated, with massive tannins, very complex, and a finish that lasted for ever.

Apparently this wine scored 95 points at the Decanter World Wine Awards this year (2016), and was named "Best Red in Southern Italy over £15."  This type of recognition has helped to put Tenute Cavalier Pepe on the map.

Sad to Leave Tenuta Cavalier Pepe Winery

After the tasting, we all rushed into the tasting room to purchase wine. The employees were very professional, and we greatly enjoyed our visit. Milena followed us out to the front porch to wave good-bye, and encourage us to return again. I definitely hope to so, and next time stay at her lovely resort on top of the hill.