Driving home from Gatwick airport I’m feeling an element of what some might refer to as the “holiday blues”. Yet I’m returning from an important, three day work trip to our Puglian wine supplier, San Marzano, where we hosted some of our Brighton-based customers; The Coal Shed, The Salt Room, 64 Degrees, Murmur and Chilli Pickle.
The tiredness, grey skies and torrential rain certainly doesn’t help matters when you land and I remember a comment made by San Marzano’s Export Manager, Angelo Cotugno the night before; “I’m not sure how you can live in the UK, I will never leave Puglia”. Having now visited this sun drenched part of the world I can understand what he means.
On arrival in Bari, Puglia’s capital city, its importance as an economic hub is very apparent. We drive past large, colourful warehouses one after the other, after the other. The vast land stretches out; there are none of the rolling hills which I’ve become accustomed to seeing in other winemaking areas of Italy. Olive trees and grape vines are in abundance (as are the crazy drivers).
The sun is shining fiercely and we’re already talking about what wine we fancy drinking with lunch – the crisp and aromatic ‘Talo’ Verdeca or the fruity ‘Tramari’ Primitivo Rosé are both popular contenders but for Chilli Pickle owner, Alun Sperring, who prefers a red, a glass of ‘Il Pumo’ Negroamaro is high on his agenda. The beauty of Negroamaro, one of Italy’s oldest grape varieties, is that its acidity keeps it elegant and refreshing, even on the hottest days.
We are all surprised at just how flat the land is and we discover that only three out of our group of 12 have visited this region. Despite several of us holding some level of wine certification, our knowledge of Puglia and its sub-regions seem limited. 10 years ago Puglia took up just a few lines within the diploma syllabus – being the largest wine producing region of Italy it was famed for bulk, blending wine, as opposed to the quality DOC/DOP wines that the likes of our supplier, San Marzano are leading the way with.
After a few hours experiencing the incredible Puglian culture at Canneto beach club where we could enjoy all of San Marzano’s wines , we make our way to dinner at the 4 Seasons restaurant in a beautiful town called Martina Franca – one of the highest towns in Puglia where the native grape variety Verdeca is grown. The flat roofed houses, each have Pumos decorating their balconies – these urn like ceramic ornaments from which San Marzano’s ‘Il Pumo’ range of wines are named after, are a sign of prosperity and luck.
We are treated to array of local dishes; plenty of Burrata, orecchiette pasta and sweet, local tomatoes for which the area is so famed for. The cellar here is full of aging Negroamaro – a reminder that this area can produce amazing, age-worthy wine at usually half the price of some more traditional Italian fine wines.
To end the night we receive a heartfelt speech from our Business Development Director, Joe Wadhams, thanking our customers and San Marzano for a spectacular first day – their Puglian hospitality certainly exceeds our expectations.
After a night’s sleep in the beautiful Relais Histò hotel in Taranto we set off early to experience some more Puglian culture. This time we board a private catamaran bound for the Salento Peninsula to discover the beautiful coastline around the heel of the Italian boot. The proximity to the sea is a constant reminder of how San Marzano can successfully produce wines of such elegance in this hot, flat setting. The constant cool sea breeze helps to retain the acidity in the grapes while the sunny conditions ensure plenty of fruit and ripe tannin – a perfect combination for age worthy wines.
As we board the boat, we are handed a glass of San Marzano’s ‘Tramari’ Rose – made from 100% Primitivo grown in the premium Salento sub-region of Puglia, this is the perfect early afternoon aperitif and pairs well with the octopus salad and seafood paella for lunch.
As we sail out further, we pass several ancient watch towers; Puglia’s strategic position and fertile soils made it an appealing target for colonization with numerous invasions from different parts of the world.
In the evening we travel to the small town of Grotagllie where we have dinner on the rooftop terrace of the Monun Hotel. This time the dishes are a modern take of the traditional fare – tomatoes stuffed with ricotta, raw sea bass with peach, seared Tuna steak and chilli infused ice cream. This fusion of new and old reminds me of San Marzano’s philosophy: “every day tradition and modernity”.
San Marzano was formed in 1962 by 19 local growers from the village San Marzano di San Giuseppe who had been growing vines for generations. The winery now deals with over 1,300 growers whose vineyards often cover no more than one hectare. The winegrowing here goes back centuries, yet the winemaking and approach is modern and forward-thinking.
On our final day we went to San Marzano‘s winery in the heart of the region. In many ways, we questioned if we needed to go, as we tasted virtually the whole range over the previous two days and once you’ve visited one winery you’ve seen them all, right? Well, we were wrong! The winery was an extremely interesting place to visit – first of all 70% of it is built underground; this is to maintain a constant cool temperature of 18C year round. In the cool cellar, 300 year old amphoras can be seen tucked away at the end of each row, alongside a couple of modern, concrete versions.
The rest of the cellar is full of oak barriques, a mixture of French, American and Russian oak depending on the wine inside. Back on ground-level, we walk amongst various sized stainless steel tanks and horizontal rotating fermenters – the majority of wineries use vertical versions of these but the horizontal fermenters ensure a more even skin maceration during fermentation which is important for colour and complexity in red wines.
Before moving into the tasting room we’re introduced to San Marzano‘s Presidente, Francesco Cavallo, who has been at the forefront of the company’s success, continuing the passion and spirit of its founders since he was appointed in 1982. San Marzano‘s flagship wine, Sessantanni, which we taste shortly after is made in honour of these founders. The grapes for this 100% Primitivo are picked from 60 year old vines growing in the renowned Primitivo di Manduria DOP region. It’s full of lush black forest fruit, with underlying notes of fennel and herbs, and an extremely long finish.
Before we leave, Angelo mentions the new project that San Marzano are working on – Masseria Samia, a sustainable vineyard where they have lovingly restored its 16th century farmhouse which will eventually be open to friends and guests visiting the winery.
The atmosphere at San Marzano isn’t that of a large scale 15 million bottle operation. Their ethos and approach has an inclusive family feel, and their wines, just something special to share.