Italy’s Mezzogiorno – Wine, Tivoli, and Personal Asides
This is the third and final installment about our trip to the Mezzogiorno (MG), the south of Italy, in Spring, 2019.
Wine production has become more important in the Mezzogiorno, led by Puglia and Campagna. At the recent Gambero Rosso wine trade show in San Francisco, we tasted only wines from the MG, and enjoyed them. Unfortunately, there is insufficient tourism in the MG to support many public tasting rooms.
Reds are prevalent in the south, and the grapes fermented are largely unique to the area and localized. In Puglia, Primitivo, which is the clone of Zinfandel, is most heavily used in the north, while Negroamaro is more popular in the south. Verdeca is the most successful white. Close by in Basilicata, Aglianico is the standard. Puglian output is overwhelmingly bulk and blend oriented, but increasingly, quality-orientation is on the uptick. One of the unusual products in the region is Primitivo di Manduria, a liquoroso, in which a table wine naturally acquires an alcohol level of 18% and above.
We visited two wineries in Southern Italy, both in Puglia. The first, I Pastini, is the rare public tasting room. Located in the Valley of Itria, a large karstic depression formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks, this family-owned winery promotes native grape varieties. Production is completely organic and all grapes are hand-harvested. Prominent whites are Verdeca, Bianco d’Alessano, and Minutolo. Reds are Primitivo and the little known Susumaniello (meaning little donkey).
Winemaker Gianni Carparelli served several wines, but we will highlight three 2017 vintages. Rampone shows bright straw yellow color and yields intense fragrance. This white is crisp, well-balanced with good acidity and a taste of mango. Made from Minutolo, this small and delicate grape was rediscovered and cloned after almost becoming extinct. Of the two reds, Arpago, a Primitivo, is one that we call dangerous. Why? Because it is so easy to drink too much. Full-bodied, balanced, and intense yet delicate with fragrant notes of wild berries and coffee. Verosud is made from the Susumaniello, native to the province of Brindisi and with a limited growing range. The name, Verosud, indicates southern seaside position of the vines where the soil is clay rather than the usual calciferous limestone. With deep ruby red/purplish color, and smooth taste of blackberry and cherry, it would be perfect with any meat or cheese. Besides the other white and red wines, they also make Spumantes, a late harvest wine, and a Grappa.
We also visited, Perrini, through a personal introduction from Franco, the owner of Masseria La Gravina (masseria meaning farm and gravina meaning canyon), where we were staying. Before we headed out, Franco called to let them know we were on our way. And good thing he did. Google Maps was faulty, as it was frequently on this trip, so we got lost in the rural middle of nowhere. At one of the many crossroads, a car was stopped and a man gesticulated to us. As it turned out, the owner of the winery and winemaker, Vito, had come to find us. He led us to his farm, Masseria Carabella on the edge of Basilicata in Terre delle Gravine, a regional park. It’s doubtful that we would have found it otherwise.
This beautiful all-organic 50 hectare farm, in the family since 1700, grows oranges and olives as well as grapes that they convert to fine wine. They also make olive oil and raise sheep. After Vito showed us around, we were hosted to a tasting by his sister, Mila, his wife, Lucia, and his dog, Willy, a cute, fun-loving, truffle-hunting Logotto Romagnolo.
Specializing in high quality Italian wines, Perrini is proud of their many national and international awards not only for the quality of their products, but also for their environmental sustainability. With passion, they grow, develop, manually harvest, select, soft-press, bottle, and then age their wines in their own temperature-controlled underground cellars before packaging for final sale.
They produce a wide range of wines, but are particularly well known for Primativo and Negroamaro varieties. Although we loved all the wines, we will highlight three. The 2018 Salento Rosso, a wine without sulfites, was awarded a New York Times Best Buy. A blend of Negroamaro (the dominant red grape in this area) and Primitivo it is full-bodied, ruby red, and has a high content of the healthy antioxidant, resveratrol. Our joint favorite was the 2016 Barrique Primitivo – elegant, intense, and somewhat jammy with cherry/blackberry bouquet and flavor. It grows near the ocean and ages at least 12 months in oak. Of course, Karin preferred the Passito. A devotee of white dessert wines, she rarely drinks sweet reds. But this luscious, sweet, velvety, smooth, late harvest Primativo is lovingly harvested through manual selection of the perfectly shriveled grapes. It won a Best Organic Wine Prize from the “Slow Food Guide.”
We had such a lovely time at Perrini, we hated saying goodbye. However, we left with the gift of a couple bottles of wine, a crate of hand-picked oranges, and an arrivaderchi until we meet again at the winery or here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When we met our friends Vito and Angela for lunch in Campagna a few days later on our journey (more on that below), we shared our remaining Passito. Although they said they normally didn’t love dessert wines, they unashamedly asked for seconds. Karin will certainly be on the lookout to buy this wine.
TIVOLI – OR, HARDLY STRICTLY MEZZOGIORNO
Our last two nights were spent in Tivoli, which is older than, and kind of an eastern exurb of Rome. By some measures, the eastern part of Lazio, the region which includes Rome and Tivoli, is considered MG, but it would be a stretch to include Tivoli, so we’re writing it up here.
This originally Etruscan town is full of history and destinations, including two fine UNESCO world heritage sites. The first, which is a symbol of the town, is Hadrian’s Villa. Hadrian was Emperor of Rome 117-138 AD, and the villa was built as a summer retreat. But calling this a villa is like calling New York City a hamlet. Built on 300 acres, there is a multitude of massive buildings, now ruins, to satisfy every need of a demanding emperor. The second is another UNESCO site, Villa d’Este, a 16th century intact structure, full of Romanesque-style frescos with world-renowned gardens and fountains. There is a castle, other Roman ruins, other villas, and the typical storico antico as well.
But our highlights were elsewhere. We had a nice Roman cuisine dinner at Alfredo della Scaleta. The following day, after walking quite a distance to get to the highly esteemed Sibilla for an afternoon meal on a public holiday (May Day), we were dejected to find they were fully booked. But in time, “the boss” took pity on us and obligingly sat us under the wisteria arbor, adjacent to the ancient Temple of Vesta, and overlooking a beautiful valley. What more could you ask for? Certainly, not rain, but that’s what we got while we were sipping our wine. About 10 tables of patrons were quickly whisked indoors, and without missing a beat, our delicious meal was on our indoor table. Kudos to the restaurant for accommodating non-recurring customers (tourists) and for how deftly they responded to the rain. Highly recommended.
The other surprise was our digs (a play on words!), aptly named Antica Villa di Bruto. In terms of bells and whistles, it was fine, but not among our favorite lodgings on the trip. But peripheral matters made it very special. Federico, husband of the owner, took the guests on a 20-minute tour of the property that was mind boggling. This was the site of the villa of Brutus. Yes, that Brutus of Julius Caesar’s line, “et tu, Brute?”. And his neighbor was Cassius, yes, that Cassius of “a lean and hungry look about him” fame. The grounds are full of archaeological ruins of galleries, arches, walls, and niches from Caesar’s time, which are protected by national trust. Further, the ruins were used in the 1969 movie The Secret of Santa Vittoria with Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani. What’s more, a 1793 painting of a segment of the ruins by Albert Christoph Dies hangs in Britain’s National Gallery. How about them apples?
FAMILY MEET UP
At times, coincidences can be freaky. We had hoped that Vic’s Sicilian cousin, Pino, would be able to join us in Calabria, but when Vic chose to spend the night in Altomonte, little did he know that Pino’s annual get together with his seminarian friends would be there for the two days before our stay!
What made our visit one that others would not replicate has to do with ethnicity. Vic’s maternal family is Sicilian, but from the Arbëreshë community. This is a group that immigrated from Albania after 1488 when the Ottoman Turks invaded the Balkans, driving 500,000 Greek Orthodox into Sicily and southern Italy. The Arbëreshë retain 15th century Albanian as their primary language and Byzantine Orthodox as their religion, which is Greek Orthodox rite, but under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church! Although Vic abandoned religion long ago, his other recently deceased cousin was the Bishop of the Byzantine Orthodox Church for Sicily.
Calabria is noted for great chili peppers and Bergomot oranges, which are prized for their perfume essence. But there is little of tourist interest. Our time was spent visiting the Arbëreshë towns and churches, including Baroque and Byzantine ones with amazing, huge-scale mosaic artistry. We had a long sitting with the welcoming Bishop of Lungro, Donato Oliverio. We also observed that the clerics of the church seemed to be among the nicest looking men in the community with the quickest and most genuine smiles. We wondered if the priesthood is the refuge for some of the best men in a poor community. Incidentally, unlike the Roman rite, the priests can be married if they do so before taking their vows.
Our favorite meal of the trip was in Calabria. In the Arbëreshë town of Civita, we ate at a restaurant called Agora (Greek for marketplace). The roast lamb and baby goat were succulent, and the pizzas were first rate. We had a great conversation with a vacationing couple now living in Lugano, Switzerland. He is Arbëreshë and originally from nearby. She is from Kosovo, and they met when he was a peacekeeper there. It was amazing that given our diversity in background, how much commonality we found to discuss.
FRIENDS MEET UP
We also have friends Vito and Angela who are both professors at the University of Catania in Sicily. A decade ago, we met them when we lived in San Francisco and they stayed a week at our neighbors’ home. About a year later, they and daughter Beatrice stayed several days with us. We had also met with them in Sicily.
It just happened that the day that we were scheduled to drive north toward the Amalfi coast, they were scheduled to head south at the end of their vacation in Irpinia, near Naples. Because of the convenient timing, we were able to meet for lunch at a roadside Mozzarella di Bufala (for which the region has designated origin certification) eatery in Battipaglia, en route for both of us. We would have liked more time together, but is was another serendipitous event, and our brief time together was welcomed.
We approached our trip to southern Italy with some trepidation. As we have preferences for major cities like Venice, Paris, and Bangkok, we weren’t sure if we’d find the isolated region of the Mezzogiorno sufficiently stimulating. Happily, our fears were unfounded, and in fact, we regretted that we didn’t have a couple more days in the deep south and more time with Naples as a hub.