As the flight descends into Bari, what unexpectedly strikes the first-time visitor’s eye is how flat the Puglian landscape is and how vast its olive groves are.
Some 60 million olive trees grow in Puglia. I love extra virgin olive oil. And I also love wine. No surprise to be landing here in the early days of June 2023: I’m answering the call of RADICI DEL SUD, il Salone dei Vini e Oli del Sud Italia.
Focusing on the regions of Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Puglia, Sardinia, and Sicily, RADICI DEL SUD’s task is a monumental one. To put the vast geographical measure in perspective, we’re talking about 123,000 km2.
Recognizing the length and breadth of the challenge, event founder Nicola Campanile has adopted a pragmatic approach. Such a gathering needs a focal point, an inspiring home: and within the historic walls of Castello Normanno-Svevo, located in Sannicandro di Bari, he and his team have certainly found one.
So, there you have it. We’re in Bari, preparing for two days of competitive blind tastings in the cool of the Castle’s chambers. With wine submissions exceeding +300 samples, the tasting teams will be required to swirl, sip, spit (and occasionally swallow) their way through a selection of Aglianico, Cannonau, Fiano, Falanghina, Montepulciano, Greco di Tufo, Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia, as well as many lesser-known gems like Coccociola, Verdeca, Minutolo, Susumaniello, Nocera, Piedirosso, Gaglioppo, Tintilia and Magliocco. Other minor varieties are to be showcased in a selection of curious blends.
As one can appreciate, many of these native varieties are rarely encountered beyond regional borders. And so, with limited experience, especially among the international tasting contingent, palate calibration is an absolute must. To bring tasters as close as possible to source, event organizers assembled two mixed groups of press & trade buyers: one team based in Calabria, the other, including yours truly, based in Bari, Puglia.
That means feet on the ground, among the vines, brushing leaves and rubbing trunks, caressing barrels in the welcome cellar chill, shaking hands and exchanging views with the hardy souls who spend their lives labouring to craft quality produce.
Even though we are in the month of June, the Puglian climate is still rather springlike; scattered showers and surprisingly modest temperatures prevail. Indeed, Europe wide the 2023 vintage has provided European vine growers with similarly demanding conditions. Persistent rainfall throughout May resulted in high fungal pressures. Treatments to combat mildew are thus well ahead of the historical average. As expected, the impact of such a weather pattern has been acutely felt in biodynamic and organic circles. Meanwhile producers following more conventional practices seem less perturbed. Not surprisingly this visible disparity of concern resonated among the touring party members, provoking thoughtful discussion. If it is that we agree quality wine is made in the vineyard, then let it be said, difficult discussions in relation to quality management and quality control must be had. Nature, for its part remains consistent and persistent in its call. The need to address the litany of imbalances caused by our economic hand is long overdue. On a global level, it is time for all to listen and buckle up; the coming years seem set to be a long and bumpy viti-cultural flight.
Having completed two days of winery visits and informative tasting masterclasses, with trips to the Puglian towns of Alberobello, Crispiano and Trani and further afield to Basilicata’s Vulture and Venosa (home to Orazio, he of carpe diem fame), our accumulated experiences were banked and transferred back to the Castle where work patiently awaited. As expected, competitive tasting days are rigorous and intense. Nevertheless, room for enjoyment and learning is always found. Details of the award-winning wines will be posted on the event’s own website.
Once the link is available, it will be added it here.
Hence, my tasting experience is summarized with the following simple subjectivity:
• The vast majority of wines I tasted were… GOOD.
• A rather modest, number were… VERY GOOD.
• A handful crossed the Rubicon to reach… OUTSTANDING.
A firm GOOD is a fair assessment of the quality we tasted. The few VERY GOOD and OUTSTANDING outliers are indicating the qualitative path that I daresay the vast majority should now seek to follow.
For those in pursuit of a deeper understanding, a few contextual guides should assist.
Though the wines we tasted are produced from native grapes of noted ancient origin, it must be accepted by everyone, meaning producers and consumers alike, that our collective experience is entirely recent. One hopes that the wineries will persevere with their cultivation. Growing understanding is a patient process. Knowledge and skill will surely evolve over time.
Of course, native grape wines, crafted with modern technologically-controlled vinification methods, prompt us to consider the extent to which these wines reflect the nature of the grapes and their place of origin? The tastings raised questions about typicity, terroir, vineyard management, harvest timings and wine-making practices. Particularly among the international contingent, a recurring comment about the level of residual sugar left many to question why? Is residual sugar indicating a southern Italian taste and preference, one that is yet to be understood by the international palate?
In tandem with such considerations, a thought must be spared for the influence of vineyard maturity. While some southern regions host thriving plots of +100-year-old vines, the reality is that most vineyards are young. Many of the recovered varieties have less than 25-30 years’ worth of quality cultivation or winemaking behind them. Of course, this situation applies across all of Italy, not just in the south. If we agree that vine maturity plays a significant role in grape and wine quality, then vineyard maturity is a measure we must employ to keep our quality expectations in perspective. Let’s face it, 25-30 years old vines are still young. Not dissimilar to us humans at the very same age. As humans our growing objectives must correlate with naturally achieved maturity. Balanced growth is essential. If we succeed in this, the qualitative differences will be dramatic.
I dare to add that their infinite worth will only be realized beyond conventional economic practices. Establishing individual identities for such rarities requires that a deeper understanding be sought. Only then will appreciation start to grow. The call of nature is heart-felt. Wise are those custodians who remain vigilant and alert to the duty of native grape care.
To live long and prosper, quality-focused practices need to grab an enduring hold.
Wishing Nicola Campanile and his team good fortune as they continue their revelationary journey toward southern Italian excellence.
What an incredible opportunity I was given to hug a 1,200-year-old olive tree at Masseria Mita.
However, in doing so, I learned with sadness that many of the regions prized stocks of ancient olive trees are increasingly being threatened by a bacterial blight called Xylella fastidiosa, unwittingly imported into Puglia on Latin American ornamental plants in 2010. Instantly one thinks back to the mid-1800’s, and to the respective stories of how Oidium, Phylloxera and Plasmopara viticola (Peronospora) arrived in Europe from North America. Once again it underlines how we humans are yet to awaken to the importance of the natural-world order. Our collective ambition for long life is in critical need of adjustment. Ancient olive trees and old vines are excellent teachers.
WE would do well to consult them before taking further blind steps toward further regret.