Post-Covid wine travel series. Undiscovered Puglia: the native grapes, the places and the millenary culture of the Murge
Given that dreaming is a form of planning, as I stated in the first episode of this mini series of articles, here we are to dream (plan) about our second post-Covid Italian wine exploration.
In this virtual wine tour of Italy, helping you planning your upcoming real, dreaming wine travel, I choose to focus on less known areas, true hidden gems, both for the quality and rarity of the wines and the breathtaking landscapes and huge cultural offer. Today we fly to Puglia, the heel of our “boot-shaped” country.
Puglia is Italy’s longest region (450 km) and far too attenuated to have established wine routes. This means that visitors rarely manage to visit all of its five main wine regions at once, from the sun kissed southerly plains of Salento to the northerly vineyards of Daunia via the green hills of Valle d’Itria. There are nearly 30 DOPs making excellent wine, mainly with native grapes unique to the region such as Nero di Troia, Minutolo, Maruggio and, of course, Negroamaro and Primitivo, the founding grapes of Puglia’s wine industry. If you are an aficionado of my wine blog and Youtube channel you know how deep is my love for Puglia, I wrote about Salento and produced many videos and content describing the beautiful cities of the Southern part of the region, I will list all of them at the end of this article.
But today I want to focus on a wine region which is often underestimated also by Italians: the Daunia, the land nestled between Trani, Andria and Barletta province and the Murge plateau.
The Murge (from the Latin murex, sharp rock) is a high, rectangular-shaped plateau located in central Puglia. It’s the only elevated area of the region, which benefits from the diurnal temperature excursion and from the maritime and mountain winds. Covering a total of 4,000 square kilometres, between the Tavoliere delle Puglie (the plain to the North) and the region of Basilicata (to the West), the rolling hills descend gently to the coast toward the land of Bari.
On the border with Basilicata, lies the Alta (Upper) Murgia, with two important wine production centres, Minervino Murge and Gravina di Puglia.
A distinctive characteristic of this area is karst formations, which give it an uncanny “lunar” appearance, like a rocky desert. But the land is not dry at it seems: it is rich in aquifers, which are in some cases quite deep, and boasts a myriad caverns, strata, and ravines, with caverns exceeding even 100 metres in depth. In addition to karst, there are tufaceous soils as well, in the Castel del Monte area, with low hills that slope gently to the sea, near Barletta and Trani on the coast.
NERO DI TROIA, THE SOUTHERN RED YOU DON’T EXPECT
The star grape variety of the area is the native Uva di Troia, which is known also as Nero di Troia. Just as Negroamaro is synonymous with the provinces of Lecce and Brindisi (Salento), and Primitivo with the province of Taranto, so Uva di Troia is specific from Foggia and the upper part of Bari province. Its monovarietal wines are not easy to find, since the grape is traditionally used as a blend grape in many red local wines, but a good Nero di Troia is a real gem: elegant and fruit-rich, with notes of blossoms and subtle spice: red cherries, red currants, black pepper, tobacco, mid weight texture, balanced acids and refined tannins: it’s not a big bold Southern red, far from the richer, alcoholic Primitivo or, at times rustic Negroamaro: Nero di Troia is charming, neat and age worthy in some cases.
The renewed interest in this grape resulted in an increase of monovarietal wines in the last decade, not only red but also rosati, the italian word for rose’ wines. Castel del Monte is the main denomination. The viticultural history here is deeply rooted in mythology. The Greek hero Diomedes is said to have landed here on his return from the Trojan War, and here he planted a shoot of what was destined to become the area’s iconic variety, Nero di Troia. In the 13th century, Swabian Emperor Frederick II chose this as his favourite domain, and the Murgia jealously preserves to this day precious relics of his power, such as the magnificent Castel del Monte (literally the castle on the hill), a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
BOMBINO NERO, MORE THAN JUST A BLEND VARIETY
Bombino Nero is another red native local variety, found mainly exclusively in the area around Castel del Monte. The cru site for the Bombino Nero vineyards are Ruvo and Corato, where there are old “alberello” (Guyot) trained vines. This variety thrives on the black soils of the Murge, rich in organic debris, stratified with marly-calcareous rocks, called “chiancarelle”. It is rarely bottled by its own, usually added to Negroamaro, but there it has a dedicated appellation, Castel del Monte Bombino Nero DOC. In the last fifty years the acreage of Bombino Nero vineyard decreased by more than fifty per cent, because its characters of delicatessen and medium light texture didn’t meet the favour of the public. Today the contrary is true, so Bombino Nero is living a true comeback. Bombino Nero wines are tasty and medium body with intense red-berry aromas. Perfect match for simple tomatoes spaghetti or pizza. Bombino Nero gives its best with rosati, rose’ wines: fresh, fruity, grapefruit hints, zesty acidity, delicious.
WINERIES TO VISIT
D’ALFONSO DEL SORDO
The D’Alfonso del Sordo estate’s history began in the 1860 when Antonio del Sordo, a Pugliese baron in San Severo, allowed Ludovico D’Alfonso, a local winemaker, to run his vineyards and make wine. In the early 1900’s, Antonio’s son, Giovanni, had no children, and wanting to continue the family name, adopted Ludovico’s son, Felice, thus creating the D’Alfonso del Sordo name. Today, Gianfelice D’Alfonso del Sordo and his family run the estate, with a particular focus on working with the local grape varieties, especially Nero di Troia. The 120 hectares of vineyards and olive groves are located in the San Severo countryside. The Nero di Troia grapes for the Casteldrione come from their Continone vineyard, which lies on soils of clay, sand and limestone at an altitude of 120 meters.
Since 2001 the estate partnered with the Enology Department at the University of Foggia to better understand Nero di Troia, in both the vineyard and the cellar. The result of their collaboration has been a huge leap forward in the quality of these wines. Today, the D’Alfonso del Sordo estate is the leading producer of Nero di Troia, crafting textured, full-bodied wines that are the epitome of this savory and exciting heritage grape, all at an amazing value.
Established in 1990, Mirvita Opificium Arte Vino vineyards are spread over an area of 27 acres (11 hectares) with an average elevation of about 800 feet (240 meters) above sea level and are located in the northwest part of the “DOP” wine region of Castel del Monte
The vineyards are located in the rolling hills of Minervino Murge and extend towards the Alta Murgia National Park running into the ancient river Ofanto and towards the Vulture area of neighbouring. The innovative and inspiring architecture, commitment to environment protection and biodiversity conservation, water saving system, photovoltaic power generation, wastewater treatment plant by phyto-purification in a pristine rural landscape have led Mirvita to a step change.
Since the early nineties, Mirvita Opificium Arte Vino focused on the enhancement of indigenous grapes such as Nero di Troia, Moscato Bianco, Aglianico and Bombino Nero.
Mirvita has been nominated by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture an “Italian Rural Project of Excellence”. This recognition has been a strong impetus for the winery to continue on the path of technological innovation and renewal of the Italian wine cultural heritage.
Mirvita can be seen as a modern wine cathedral open to the territory and guardian of the Italian wine cultural heritage. Through the perception of the spatial dimension, a winery dedicated to the production of wines of excellence has evolved into an emotional and dynamic space that arouses emotions, which slowly help tracing in the visitor’s mind its own personal history.
BOCCA DI LUPO – TORMARESCA
Bocca di Lupo winery is located in the countryside of Minervino Murge and is gracefully set within the estate’s 140 hectares of vineyards; its fortified stone structure and bright white walls made of tough ricks were built upholding ancient building traditions typical of manor farms in the Murgia area. Historic country manors, dry stonewalls and endless rocky hillside trails, are the only traces of man’s presence in a countryside that refuses to be defeated by urban development. The barrel cellar is deep inside the winery. It is dominated by a double barrel vault ceiling that was built using the same tough bricks and is able to store up to 1,000 oak barrels. From the second floor there is a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside, the village of Minervino appears on the opposite hill with its brilliant white stone buildings reflecting in the sun while to the west the volcano Vulture vigilantly keeps watch.
The area offers endless opportunity of tourism: stunning art cities and villages, crystalline waters’ beaches on the shoreline, natural parks and a huge gastronomic scene. I list here what you absolutely must see, but there is a lot more. I will link some web sources below for inspiration.
Bari is a port city on the Adriatic Sea, and the capital of southern Italy’s Puglia region. Its maze-like old town, Barivecchia, occupies a headland between 2 harbors. Surrounded by narrow streets, the 11th-century Basilica di San Nicola, a key pilgrimage site, holds some of St. Nicholas’ remains. To the south, the Murat quarter has stately 19th-century architecture, a promenade and shopping areas.
It was founded about 1200 by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, who created several new towns in Apulia, to which he attracted Italians, Greeks, and Jews by grants of privileges for their aid in his struggle against the barons. The town is surrounded by the medieval high wall (alta mura) from which it takes its name and it is famous all over the world for its unique bread. See below. INFOS HERE
CASTEL DEL MONTE
UNESCO included Castel del Monte on their World Heritage list in 1996. because they recognized the fortress as “[…] a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture, a successful blend of elements from classical antiquity, the Islamic Orient and north European Cistercian Gothic.” INFOS HERE
PARCO NATURALE DELL’ALTA MURGIA
The Alta Murgia is a breathtaking curvy area located in the middle of the Land of Bari indeed. It is a limestone block emerged 70 million years ago and its hills even got about 600 meters altitude. The position and the peculiarities of the National Park give to travellers the chance to admire incredible landscapes at sunrise or sunset. MORE HERE
Trani is a delightful fishing port with a charming marina which attracts a stylish crowd to its waterfront bars and restaurants and to promenade along the harbour front admiring the yachts and fishing boats as well as the elegant seaside buildings and especially the large cathedral dominating the seafront. MORE INFOS HERE
MUST TRY SPECIALTIES
PANE DI ALTAMURA – If you are a bread lover, like me, you can’t miss this DOP bread made in the village of Altamura since centuries. By law, it must be produced according to a range of strict conditions, including using particular varieties of durum wheat (all locally produced), a certain specification of water, a consistent production method, and must also have a final crust that is at least 3mm thick. A must try with the local olive oil.
BURRATA DI ANDRIA – The most delicious, creamy, rich cow’s mozzarella you can possibly imagine… MORE HERE
ORECCHIETTE – The pasta that they make in Bari (and the pasta that is popular throughout Puglia) is called orecchiette – little ears. Orecchiette is pasta that is made with semolina and water. The dough is kneaded and kneaded into a tidy mound that the women then slice into pieces when they are ready to make the concavely shaped pasta. Watching the old ladies crafting Orecchiette in Bari vecchia (the old part of the city) it’s an experience you won’t never forget. Photo and description by Americaninrome