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Beyond The Known

I love Italy! It is a country filled with a long and rich history, captivating wines, mouth-watering food and awe-inspiring art.  Indeed, there is something to satisfy all of one’s senses, no matter which of its 20 regions you might visit. No wonder one of Italy’s nicknames is Bel Paese, meaning “beautiful country”.  

Finding Italy on a map is quite easy, identifiable by its long boot-shaped peninsula. 

Its diverse and breathtaking landscape starts with the eastern Dolomite Mountains, Carnic Alps and Venetian Pre-Alps on the northern border.   

The dramatic Apennine Mountain chain stretches along two-thirds of the length of Italy and is the source for almost all the rivers in this country. Situated on the Mediterranean Sea, Italy has a seemingly endless coastline and is surrounded by the Adriatic Sea to the east, the Ionian Sea to the south and the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Seas to the west. 

Although wine vineyards can be found in each of Italy’s regions, thoughts usually turn to Tuscany, Veneto, Piemonte and Abruzzo when considering Italian wine. However, the region of Puglia (also known as Apulia) located in southern Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea, should be in your thoughts as well. If you like gentle tropical breezes, palm trees, beautiful beaches, historical charm, traditional cuisine, and of course wines that communicate the terroir, then Puglia is a region worth exploring.

Within the region of Puglia is the Salento Peninsula which is in the southernmost part of the boot called the heel. It is bordered by the Adriatic and Ionian Seas and is home to Salice Salentino, DOC.

There are 25 DOCs in Puglia but the wines of Salice Salentino are world-renowned. Salice Salentino obtained DOC status in 1976 and the Salice Salentino Consortium was founded in 2003 by a group of producers whose mission it is to protect and promote the indigenous grapes throughout the territories in the province of Lecce and beyond. The Consortium represents approximately 80% of the entire Salice production chain.

The grape vines here date back to the 6th century BC, but it wasn’t until the early 1930s that farmers started to experiment with the indigenous grapes Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera.  The first Salice Salentino red wine produced was a blend of these two grapes. Today, there are a variety of wine styles produced from the indigenous grape varietals that grow here.

The climate is dry with long hot summers and cool breezes emanating from the Mediterranean that balance the temperatures in the vineyard. Because the Apennine Mountain chain bypasses Puglia, the land here is relatively flat with diverse and fertile soils, mostly made up of clay and limestone. Due to the soils’ ability to retain groundwater reserves, especially important in dry years, the vines are able to provide high-quality wines. All of these attributes combined set the stage for making this the perfect agricultural area for producing and contributing to the complexity and uniqueness of the wine. In addition to grapes, this region is also noted for producing olive oil, artichokes and tomatoes. In fact, fifty percent of Italy’s olive oil is produced in Puglia!

The principal red grape that defines Salice Salentino is Negroamaro.

Other red grape varietals such as Primitivo, Malvasia Nera, Aleatico and Susumaniello are also grown here. White grape varieties include Chardonnay, Fiano and Pinot Blanco.
Negroamaro in Italian means, “black bitter”. It is usually produced as a single varietal, but can also be blended. The DOC regulations state that wines labeled Salice Salentino DOC must have a minimum of 80% Negroamaro grapes.  Malvasia Nera grapes can make up the other 20%.
The finest Negroamaro wine is made in the Salice Salentino DOC. The wine is extremely dark in color with typical dark berry flavors and is mildly aromatic. Negroamaro grapes are also used to make wines such as Negroamaro Rosato, sparkling rosé, dessert wine and Riserva. All wines labeled Riserva must be aged for a minimum of 24 months, including at least 6 months in oak barrels.
Since we are in the heel of the boot, let’s explore a few wineries and taste some wine.

Cantina San Donaci is located in the Salento countryside and is one of the oldest wineries here, established in 1933.  What once was a small group of 12 farmers whose objective it was to expand and develop their land and products, is today a large group of 600 partners. Approximately 50 to 60 quintals of grapes are produced per year.
The winery has 500 hectares of vineyards in prime areas of Salice Salentino with a variety of soils and microclimates.  Grape vines grow on calcareous-argillaceous soils that are conducive to the hot and dry climate. Different types of planting systems and pruning techniques are used depending upon the varietal and irrigation needs.  According to the winery, “the key is moderate growth and fewer buds to attain superior grape quality”.

The most up to date modern technology is used in the winemaking process. “One of the most important features of our products is the irreplaceable aging in durmast barrels, which refine the taste and enhance the high quality”. Durmast is a European oak and is known for its dark, heavy and tough elastic wood.

Cantina San Donaci uses only indigenous grapes from their vineyards. In addition to the traditional red grape varieties of Negroamaro, Primitivo and Malvasia Nera they also use Malvasia Bianco, Chardonnay, Bombino and Trebbiano.

Anticaia Salice Salentino Rosato DOP 2017 is made with 90% Negroamaro and 10% Malvasia Nera. The Malvasia Nera helps to soften the tannins and brings more aromatics to the blend. The wine is a striking coral color with pronounced aromas of roses, strawberry and cherry. The main flavors on the palate are strawberry, cherry and raspberry, with a hint of lemon zest on the finish. This is a dry and lively wine with a good balance between the acidity and alcohol. Pair this wine with white meats, seafood and mild cheese.
Alcohol: 13.5%

Candido Winery is just up the road from the town of Salice Salentino and is another very old winery, founded in 1929 by Franceso Candido. Franceso produced his first wine in 1929, setting the standard for the beginning of Salento-style winemaking. Alessandro Candido who is Managing Director and his brother Giacomo are the third generation in this family-owned business.
The winery has 140 hectares of dryland farming vineyards on which organic red and white indigenous grapes are grown.  According to Alessandro, “Negroamaro is the absolute king and the one on which Candido focuses its work the most”. 

Alessandro Candido

When it comes to winemaking, Candido combines tradition with state of the art equipment, producing wines that let the grapes and terroir speak.

La Carta Salice Salentino Riserva DOC 2015 is made with 95% Negroamaro and 5% Malvasia Nera. Since “Riserva” is on the label, we know that the wine aged for a minimum of 24 months with at least 6 months in oak barrels. The color is dark ruby with aromas of red berries and black berries, plum, spice and earth. The palate is layered with blackberry, black cherry, plum, pepper, vanilla and hints of chocolate. Pepper and cherry notes on the long finish had me craving for another sip. This is an easy wine to drink. It is full-bodied and beautifully balanced with richness and structure. Pair with meats, pasta, aged cheese, grilled veggies and even pizza!
Alcohol: 13.5%

I recently asked Alessandro what goals in winemaking Candido is hoping to achieve.  His reply was as follows and I believe he speaks for most wineries in Salento:

“Tradition is what identifies a territory and its own wines. Today, the “New Wine World” – and I do refer to the one overseas - has made international grape varieties its own, reaching excellent quality at a very good price!

The wines we produce and sell are unique and different thanks to our indigenous grapes which grow up here and nowhere else in the rest of the world and for this reason they represent our future! I know this might seem obvious, but it is the characteristics of a specific territory that give wines their inimitable character. And that’s what we are focusing on: quality and uniqueness, an excellent choice that has already shown great results to us”.

Salice Salentino wines truly express the land that they come from with their exotic and exceptional aromas and flavors. And if the two samples of wine that I just tasted are any indication of what Salento has to offer, then I can’t wait to sample more!
So, the next time you’re considering an Italian wine to drink, think beyond the known and try Salice Salentino wine. Pour yourself a glass and enjoy your visit to Salento one sip at a time!

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