Sunday, July 31, 2016

Cavorting at Cantine Cantele – A Joyful Winery in Puglia Focusing on Negroamaro

After lunch in the historic walled city of Lecce, we drove about one hour north to Cantine Cantele, a large beautiful winery housed in an impressive white stucco building in the country.  We were welcomed by Federica in Hospitality who had warned us in advance that Cantine Aperte was taking place in Italy that weekend.

Cantele Winery - Photo Credit:

“What is Cantine Aperte?” I asked. “It sounds like ‘winery open’.”

“Yes,” she said, “It means that most of the wineries in Italy have an open house that weekend, and that anyone can visit the wineries and taste wine for free.”

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “That sounds perfect!”

“Well, not really,” she responded, “because we will be so crowded that it will be difficult to provide you with a private tasting.”

“No worries.  We can just mingle with everyone else.”

Poster of Cantine Aperte Festival at Cantina Cantele

Joining the Party at Cantine Cantele

And so we arrived at Cantine Cantele around 4:30 in the afternoon, and discovered it was hopping, with lots of good music, crowds of local Italians, children and dogs running around, and everyone gesturing and talking loudly. There were games set up for the children, and lots of free food and wine. We loved it!

After greeting us and handing us each a glass of cold rose made from the Negramaro grape, Federica invited the 28 of us to go on a tour of the facilities with around other 20 Italian visitors. Our tour guide did an excellent job of switching back and forth between English and Italian as she showed us the receiving dock with crusher/destemmer, stainless steel tanks, the barrel room, and finally the bottling room. It was fun to mingle with the locals who seemed to really enjoy the tour.

One interesting fact we learned is that Cantine Cantele is experimenting with sugar cane corks, instead of natural corks to avoid cork taint. The guide reported that so far they were happy with the results on their less expensive reds, roses, and whites.  This sounded like a good solution because Italians are still not accepting of screwcaps on their wines.

Our Group at Cantine Cantele

Overview of Cantine Cantele – A 3rd Generation Family Winery in Puglia

At the end of the tour, our guide introduced us to Gianni Cantele, the winemaker, who described the winemaking processes and provided an overview of the winery. Established in 1979, Cantele is a 3rd generation family winery, with four sons currently at the helm. They divide up the business roles, with Gianni (named for his grandfather who started the winery) heading up winemaking.

Altogether they farm 150 hectares and produce approximately 1.5 million bottles.  Cantele is not in the bulk wine business, as many Puglian wineries are, but instead focuses on premium and luxury wines. Gianni told us that, in the beginning, local Italians wouldn’t buy nice wines from Puglia, so they were forced to export. Now that Puglia is gaining more attention, Italians are buying.

Cantele wines are sold mainly in restaurants and wine stores in Italy, and they employ 40 agents across Italy to sell their wine. They are big in social media, and plan to expand. Cellar doors sales are around 3% currently, but slowly growing. Export is still their largest channel, with 60% of their wines sold abroad, mainly to the USA and Germany.

Our Group Tasting Cantele Rose of Negroamaro

A Tasting of Five Wines - Focusing on Negroamaro

Despite the many guests below, Gianni took the time to invite us upstairs to a private tasting of four wines. Because Cantele is located in the Salice Salentino DOC, their focus is Negroamaro, and this is one of the main reasons we wanted to visit with them.

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, but can also be made into a rose. 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 where Cantele is located.

Wines We Tasted at Cantine Cantele

Gianni explained that 50% of their production is Negroamaro, and though the Salice Salentino DOC allows 12 tons per hectare, they generally harvest only 6 to 7 tons per hectare for their high end wines.  He then led us through a tasting of four Negroamaro based wines, and described the winemaking methods:

2015 Cantele Negroamaro Rosata – bright pink, maraschino cherry nose, fresh and fun. Six hours saignee, fermented in stainless at 16 C for 12 to 15 days. Aged 50 to 60 days before release. ($7) The remainder of the must was then used to produce red Negroamaro.

2015 Cantele Rohesia – darker pink, raspberry, more structured and serious rose. 24 hours on skins. Made from best grapes in older vineyards. Fermented in stainless steel at 16-18 C. Refreshing because of the naturally high acid in Negroamaro grapes.  ($12)

2012 Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva – classic younger Negroamara with bitter black fruit, big tannins, and astringent acid.  Definitely needed more time, but varietally correct. Aged one year in older oak and one year in tank before bottling and release.

2013 Theresa Manara Cantele Negroamaro – a beautiful wine made with 100% Negraoamaro, but from an old field blend, so there could have been some other varietals mixed in. Long maceration around 32 days, with gentle pumpovers in the beginning. This wine was opaque red/black in color, with complex black fruit, anise, and spices. Aged 12 to 14 months in 100% new French oak, it was very well integrated, with approachable tannins, good concentration and a long finish. 14%. Very enjoyable. (13 euros in tasting room).

After the tasting, we joined the crowds downstairs at the tasting bar and sampled several other wines.  The one that caught our attention the most was:

2013 Cantele Amativo – the icon wine of the estate receiving 2 red glasses from Gambero Rosso, and made from 60% Primativo and 40% Negroamaro. It reminded me very much of a big red zinfandel from Lodi – huge plush tannins, concentrated, jammy, spicy fruity with chocolate notes. Over the top, decadent, and causing most everyone who tasted it to fall in love instantly.  (16.50 euros in the tasting room).

The Best Wine Tasting Selfie Ever!

At the end of the tasting, Gianni took this great “selfie” of us, and then posted it on Facebook. We left Cantine Cantele in a very happy mood, pleased to be part of a local wine tourism experience. We were also very impressed with Cantele’s focus on native grapes, such as Negroamaro, as well as their environmental practices, which included solar panels and try to keep Puglia beautiful and natural.

Selfie at Cantine Cantele with Gianni Cantele, Winemaker

Friday, July 29, 2016

Cantine San Marzano – Home of the Best Primativo in Puglia, Italy

When I contacted Angelo Cotugno, Export Manager at Cantine San Marzano, to see if we could schedule a winery visit on Sunday morning at 11am, I didn’t realize that wineries are usually not open on Sunday in Italy.  Since I’m from Napa/Sonoma, where Sundays are often one of the busiest wine tourism days, I was caught off guard when Angelo informed me they were not open.

“However, we will open the winery especially for you!”

These were such sweet words to my ears, and so incredibly kind – illustrating the warm hospitality of Puglia.  Indeed, not only did Angelo show up at 11am on a Sunday morning to open the winery so we could enjoy a tour and tasting, but the President of Cantine San Marzano, Francesco Cavallo, also showed up to greet us.

Angelo Leading Tour of Cantine San Marzano

Success Story of Cantine San Marzano

Cantine San Marzano was founded in 1962 as a small cooperative with 19 grape growers. Over the ensuing years, they grew to be very successful and today are one of the largest cooperatives in Puglia, purchasing grapes from more than 1200 growers.

We were told that each grower often owns only one hectare of vines.  The winery provides quality specifications, and each grower picks and delivers the grapes to the coop.  Only the best grapes go into the high-end cuvees.

Angelo informed us that they produce around 20 million bottles per year and sell the wine under 28 brands at multiple price points, ranging from bulk wine to supermarket brands, as well as high-end brands sold to top restaurants in Europe.  The San Marzano brand is their luxury brand, and is well-respected by Michelen star chefs – a group with whom Cantine San Marzano has developed close relationships.  Altogether they export wine to 70 countries.

They also own 30 local retail shops, where customers can go to refill their carboys, as well as purchase bottle wine.  We were impressed with the sophistication of their branding and marketing ability, and learned they are using social media and expanding their online wine sales.  Both Angelo and Francesco said they believe online wine sales will be very important in the future.

Signature Wines of Cantine San Marzano

Sophisticated Winery Operation with ISO Certification

The winery itself is very large and impressive with huge stainless steel tanks, rotary fermenters, a large bottling wine, and a new barrel room where they plan to set up a tasting room for VIP visitors.  They are using a lot of new technology in their wine analysis lab, and have achieved by ISO 9000 and 14000 certifications.  In order to operate such a large establishment, they have 55 employees.

Since they are exporting to so many different countries, they have a very sophisticated bottling and labeling room where they can customize shipments to meet the various international regulatory requirements. We had an interesting discussion around the use of box wines and screw caps, which Angelo told us, were not well accepted in Italy, but were in other countries. Also, they explained that the US was one of the few countries that insisted on 12 bottle case shipments.  Most other countries prefer 6 bottle cases.

The Magnificent Star Sculpture in the Barrel Room of Cantine San Marzano

A Focus on Primativo from Manduria – Delicious!

Cantine San Marzano is located in the Manduria region, which is considered to be the birthplace of primativo in Italy. Indeed the town of Manduria is only about 10 miles from the winery. Though they produce many different types of wine from Puglia, San Marzano signature’s wine is primativo, and it is for this reason that we wanted to visit with them.

Primitivo – a clone of zinfandel with the same jammy, berry, peppery notes, but often with a more earthy and rustic quality. Primitivo is said to have came to Puglia from Croatia.

San Marzano makes both the dry red primativo from the Manduria DOC as well as the sweet zinfandel dessert wine that has received the Manduria DOCG designation.  We tasted two wines, and were very impressed with both – especially the price points:

2013 Talo Primativo de Manduria, Cantine-Feudi di San Marzano –A very elegant, dry red primativo, bursting with berries, spice and a touch of herbs. Concentrated flavors, velvety tannins and a long seamless finish. Very well balanced without too much oak. Only spent 6 to 7 months in 50% new French oak. Amazingly only $10 euros in Italy, but $18 in the US due to import costs and mark-ups. Considered to be a top value due to low price and very high quality. This wine won a 3 glass award from Gambero Rosso

2012 Primativo de Manduria Riserva 62 Anniversario, San Marzano - Made from 75 year old bush vines that only achieve around 1.2 tons per acre, this wine is massive and powerful with rich oak spice, mixed berries and chocolate. Very satisfying in an over the top, over-oaked style. It spent 18 months in 100% new French and American oak. 14.5% alcohol. $30 in US market. This wine was the favorite of many people on the trip, especially the younger women, who wanted to know where they could purchase it in the US. It is considered to be the icon wine of the winery.

Tasting Seminar at Cantine San Marzano

The Heavy Bottle Dilemma for Puglia

On an interesting side note, we noticed that the icon wine was packaged in big heavy black bottle.  We had noticed the same phenomenon at Cantine Albea, and it was commented upon with distain by the Gambero Rosso authors as an issue in Puglia.  However, we were told that because a heavy bottle often communicates “luxury” to many buyers, that it was important for Puglia to adopt this type of packaging as they focused on transitioning from a region known formerly only for inexpensive bulk wine to one that can produce luxury wine product as well.  This makes sense, and I am hopeful that in a few years, they will be able to adopt a more environmentally friendly bottle, and also one that doesn’t weigh down my suitcase so much for the flight home.

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.