In September Vinnie and I happened to find ourselves deep into the heel of Italy, near the town of Manduria, home to Primitivo di Manduria. In the middle of the 20th century, the south of Italy was poor and politically ignored, seen solely as an exporter of labour to other parts. The strong, full-bodied wines of the area were also exported to other parts, mainly France, to anonymously fortify the weaker offerings produced in the cooler climate.
Into this scenario stepped Luigi Veronelli, a truly remarkable man. A lifelong anarchist and intellectual, he managed to combine his ideological passions with a love of Italian regional food and wines made from indigenous grapes such as Primitivo. Any man who can publish a book with the title Alla Ricerca dei Cibi Perduti, In Search of Food Lost, paraphrasing Proust, well, you just have to respect that. He was a giant in the fight to champion traditional Italian food and wines and by his tireless efforts he inspired generations of young Italians to follow in his footsteps and preserve and, indeed, enhance their gastronomic inheritance.
One such man was Gianfranco Fino and it was Veronelli himself who convinced him to become a winemaker. Gianfranco started in January, 2004, when he purchased a hectare of 50-year-old Primitivo vines. That was followed in 2006 by the purchase of a hectare of 40-year-old Negroamaro vines. Together with Nero di Troia, these are the signature vines of Puglia. Today he has 14.5 hectares from which he produces a modest 20,000 bottles per year. There is a reason for this low level of production – it’s all about quality. His wines are on the wine list of every 3-star Michelin restaurant in Italy and were served at the 2008 G8 Conference of the Heads of State.
So, in short, Vinnie and I were visiting viticultural royalty. However, we were pretty confused when we arrived in a quiet backstreet in a sleepy town called Sava. “This can’t be right, surely,” I thought. But it was, for behind an anonymous door, a bit like Dr. Who’s Tardis, is the place where all the magic happens. Inside is the state-of-the-art machinery that allows Gianfranco to convert his carefully-cultivated grapes into wonderful wines.
We were shown around by Tommaso and it was he that introduced us to the small, but very select range of wines that Gianfranco produces. The first wine we tried is called Se and comes from a newer vineyard, only about 11 years old. This wine is 100% Primitivo with a deep garnet colour. The bouquet is intense with cherries and blackberries and hints of cinnamon. This is a beautifully structured wine with the tannins balanced by the acidity and a hint of sweetness.
We then moved on to sample Es, again made from Primitivo, but this time from much older vines – in this case the youngest is 60 years old. The colour is ruby with hints of garnet but the major difference from Se is in the bouquet. This is complex with cigars and old leather-bound books as well as cloves and nutmeg – a real olfactory tour de force. On the palate, there is cherry jam and although this is a wine with a high ABV at 16.5% the warmth at the back of the mouth was deceptively light.
Jo is made from negroamaro grapes harvested from 50-year-old vines. The colour is a deep royal purple with a bouquet rich in spices, cloves and nutmeg, and the herbs rosemary and sage. The vineyard is close to the sea and the onshore breezes bring with them a subtle salinity that you can taste together with bitter cherries. Tommaso suggests trying it with tuna.
The last of the range is what is termed a late harvest wine called Es piu Sole. Leaving the grapes on the vine for that little while longer to obtain that extra sugar produces a luscious sweet red with nutmeg and cinnamon on the nose and on the palate sweet chocolate with a hint of the bitterness of almond in the background.
The winery was very busy when we called as the first harvest had come in so we had to leave to allow the serious business of making these great wines to continue. However, before we said our goodbyes, Tommaso told us that a new tasting room and very exclusive restaurant is under construction in Manduria. This should be open by the end of the year so keep an eye on their website. Gianfranco does not do things by halves so expect this to be something very special indeed.More about this vineyard