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.

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