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On May 17 I attended a luncheon featuring the wines of four Apulian producers paired with Chef/Owner Chris Douglass’ and Chef Nuno Alves’ Apulia-inspired dishes.  The wine producers brought their wines and attended the dinner. 

Beniamino D’Agostino, one of two brothers directing the family estate, Cantine Botromagno, presented the first wine, a 2O1O Gravina DOC white wine, which was served by itself as an aperitif.  I had met Beniamino twice before at the D’Agostino winery in Gravina, a town on the western edge of the Murgia plateau in southwest Apulia.  The vineyards’ elevation at over 1OOO feet is high enough to give the wines more freshness and more acidity than the majority of Apulian wines on the market.  The D’Agostino family presently is the only producer of the Gravina DOC.  DOC regulations stipulate a minimum of 5O% Greco and 2O% Malvasia del Chianti.  The Greco adds structure, power and acidity.  The Malvasia has more floral aromas, makes the palate broader, smoother and “easier-to-drink”.  The 2O1O Botromagno Gravina contains 6O% Greco and 4O% Malvasia.  The sample I tasted at Tavolo was pale green with tints of brown-yellow with a delicate floral, white peach bouquet.  The brown-yellow in the color came from the presence of Malvasia.  Greco, despite its usually moderate alcohol content (here 12.5%) usually seems solid, hard, almost tough, and slightly bitter.  The Malvasia had made this wine softer and less bitter.  Though it was not served with food, it would seem to me perfect with meaty, but delicate, fish filets such as halibut.

Next was another wine made with the Greco grape variety.  It was made by Casaltrinita, a large cooperative winery in the province of Foggia in northern Apulia.  The appellation cited on the label was Puglia IGT which means that the wine had to be at least 85% Greco and the grapes could be sourced from anywhere in Puglia, the Italian word for Apulia.  The winery and vineyards are located on a fertile plain under the Galgano promontory, a distinctive spur-shaped piece of land veering into the Adriatic Sea off Apulia’s northern coastline.  Due to its lower elevation and proximity to the warm Adriatic, the climate is warmer than that at Gravina.  The harvest comes in early September.  This wine was yellow-green, lacking the brown tint of Botromagno Gravina, though it was of the same vintage – 2O1O.  Green apple and white peach vied in the nose.  The wine was more tart, thicker and harder in the mouth than the Botromagno that preceded it.  The difference in style must have been due in part to the varietal makeup, which, this case, did not include Malvasia.  The pairing with a Maplebrook Cheese version of an Apulian burrata was evidence of how white wine pairs better with soft, runny, creamy cheeses than would red wine. 

Orecchiette means “little ears” in Italian and this ear-shaped pasta is made by hand in homes throughout Apulia.  The sauce was tomato-based.  It was slightly piquant due to some hot pepper simmered into it.  Beniamino, sitting beside me, nodded telling me that this type of sauce was commonly served on orecchiette in Apulia.  The flavor of lamb sausage pushed the dish towards a red wine, and the red wine served was the Teanum “Otre” Primitivo IGT Puglia 2OO8.  Primitivo is the same vine variety as Zinfandel, but here in the warmer climate of Apulia, the variety shows as much dried grape character as fresh and the alcohol content is high – 15% on the label.  In the mouth, slight residual sweetness and a smooth texture imparted by the ripeness gave the wine a luscious, savory character that was perfect for the spicy orecchiette and the tomato sauce.  Cantine Teanum is located near the Adriatic coast above the Galgano promontory at the northern edge of Apulia.

The main course – a 2OO9 Masseria Celentano, “Querciagrande”, Nero di Troia – matched slices of herb-crusted sirloin steak served on spelt with an olive relish.  Nero di Troia is a grape variety native to central Apulia which was in the past used in small amounts to add color and structure to red wines.  Since the mid-199Os, Apulia has looked to offer wines with color and structure that could hold their ground with the intense, structured red wines of Bordeaux, Napa Valley and the Northern Rhone.  Nero di Troia is the indigenous grape that gives the Apulian wine industry its best opportunity to enter the collectible, cellar-worthy red wine category.  This particular wine was very deep in color, so deep that reddish pigments were suspended in the tears that cascaded down the glass.  Beyond the red berry fruits, the smell of new oak was evident.  On the palate, the wine was marked by its high astringency, which gave the wine verticality, a contrast to luscious horizontality of the Teanun “Otre” Primitivo that preceded it.  The astringency of the wine mirrored the firm texture of the sirloin steak. 

The last course featured a specialty sweet wine, the 2OO5 Gravisano Malvasia Passita from Botramagno.  It was matched with an almond-flavored yellow-cake garnished with strawberries and a scoop of extra-virgin olive oil flavored-gelato.  Beniamino D’Agostino described how the freshly harvested Malvasia grapes were dried on straw mats until they became raisins.  The raisins were then gently pressed and fermented.  The wine balances the sweet syrupy taste of raisins, the sourness of wine and the spirituous flavor and texture imparted by 15% alcohol.  Its taste warmed and caressed the cool, olive-scented gelato. 

For the last fifteen years, Apulia wine producers have been slowly moving their wines up-market, distancing them from the bulk-wine image that has long been associated with their region.  Many of their best wines have used varieties which have long been present in their region, such as Greco, Primitivo and Nero di Troia.  The resulting wines offer new colors, smells, tastes, and textures.  From 1995 to the present day, wine critics both in Italy and abroad encouraged Apulian producers to make overripe, alcoholic and oaky wines.  The wine press supported these wines in the marketplace.  There are some signs of the beginning of a movement away from this style.  If that trend continues, the velvet curtain of overripeness and oak will increasingly lift off the wines revealing what is truly genuine and of place.  -BILL NESTO, MW