So, slowly, I started asking students what they saw as we passed the countless vineyards of Puglia, following my own beliefs that you can’t understand Italian wine until you understand the label and you can’t understand the label until you understand what actually happens in the fields. ‘Well, they look like vines’, they’d say, ‘Brown and gnarly’. ‘But how are they trained?’, I’d ask. ‘You know, like vines’. ‘So, is that going to be good wine or bad wine do you think’, I’d ask. ‘Good wine’, they say. ‘How do you know’, I’d ask. ‘Because it’s Italian’, they’d say, somehow forgetting Lambrusco, the wine in Tetra-paks or any of the wine on offer in English supermarkets. I’d scan their faces- folks with Ph.D.s, businesses of the own and more stamps on the passports than I’ll ever have- wondering how this subject ever become so cloudy to them, especially one that they so clearly loved.
What newsletters are based on those discussions, the four tiers of Italian wine, as recognised by the government here in Italy: Vino Da Tavola. IGT. DOC. And DOCG. In four parts (Parts 2,3 and 4 are on their way).
And so for Part One of the series, let’s start right here in Nino’s fields, just outside Salice Salentino.
You read grapevines just like you do Renaissance paintings or Greek pottery: Really look closely and you’ll begin to see something of a world view, hidden in the tiniest of details.
How are these vines trained? That is, how has man forced his will on them, remembering that vines are actually that- vines – and that they want to grow as the please, up trees and rocky hills. (Perhaps even more than the actual harvest it’s the pruning that is the most humbling part of my time making wine, when you come face to face with the unstoppable yet silent life-force of the plant world. Cut it. It grows back. Cut it. It grows back. If you spend more time in the city than the countryside, it’s the same quiet beauty, as the tiniest plants silently crack cement that would require jackhammers as loud as airplanes for the rest of us).
Here, Nino is using the double Guyot method preferred by a lot of the world, although, not that typical of here in Puglia, where the alberello method is used (more on that in part three). Double Guyot is the preferred method in Bordeaux, telling again, as finding them in Puglia implies travel and study, as do the rose bushes (read on).
The Doppio Guyot or double Guyot trains the vine into a fork that runs left and right on a metal wire. The effect is bondage and discipline, but for plants. It’s time-consuming for the pruner, the extra labour performed among the winter elements. But it also dictates how the leaves will grow, directly over top of the fruit, shielding it from the Half-Day sun. Come harvest, the grapes will contain less over-all sugar, which is what will eventually turn into alcohol.
And Nino’s vines stand out from the others. Lately I’ve noticed that whenever I notice a grower doing something atypical from the others in the community, the effect is almost always fascinating.
This is Nino, a total sweetheart of a man.
I’d tell you more about him but there isn’t a lot to tell that his vineyard isn’t already telling us.
There is an old zen saying: it’s the spaces between the bars that hold the tiger in the cage. Here, it’s the trees between the wines that makes the grapes grow best. Convert too much land to grape production and where do the birds perch? Without birds, what keeps down the bugs that compete for the sweet berries or their meaty green leaves?
It’s common around the world to find rose bushes in vineyards, their stunning pinks and reds clashing gorgeously with the yellow-green grape leaves. It turns out that roses and grape vines thrive in the same soil, only that rose bushes are slightly more fragile and tend to develop problems right before a vine will, an agricultural canary in the coal mine.
Thoughtful farmers tend to think of their fields as single systems but if you were to ask a sociologist, what’s happening in any given field quickly becomes more macro. These bundles of cuttings will be donated to nearest town, in this case, Novoli, where a massive, five-story bonfire will be erected, burning for four days straight. Tens of thousands of Salentini from all around the region will attend, consuming the new wine, its release coinciding with their arrival.
The presence of wildlife, however tame, reveals the choice against pesticides, a decidedly more labour-intensive method.
But snails are also widely consumed in the Salento, their staggering ability to hibernate (for years, if need be) put them historically in the role of dependable animal protein, something, that before the age of refrigeration, was always one of mankind’s biggest dietary dilemmas. (Rabbits, chickens and pigeons owe their domestication to the same factors).
So if you were riding down a country lane, as I was, what would you be able to tell from Nino’s vines?
That he is a thoughtful man, willing to work harder for a better product.
That this field will produce wine high in alcohol but that Nino is trying to get that down by training his vines so that the leaves cover the grapes themselves as much as possible. By changing this one technique, he may be able to make the leap from 15 to 14 or 13.5 percent alcohol, making a more refined wine that tastes of the local soil rather than just hot alcohol. (Many of the wines we buy for the school have been initially decreasing’ a half percent every couple of years, the ‘hot’ alcoholic vapors giving way to rich red fruit and tobacco aromas).
But although high quality, Nino is still only producing vino da tavola, which in the simplest sense, reads as ‘table wine’. In the legal sense however, it’s a bucket classification for any wine that doesn’t fall into the government-controlled IGT, DOC or DOCG ratings. Technically speaking, the so-called ‘Super Tuscans’ are table wines, as they opted out of the governmental ratings in order to import Cabernet and Merlot to Tuscany, a really, really bad idea in my opinion.
‘I’m retired’, Nino said, when I asked him why he takes such a labour-intensive stance to make non-classified wines. ‘I’m not interested in working with consortiums or any big bottlers. I just want to make some wine that I’m proud of. I sell some to a local restaurant who sells it in carafes as ‘local red’. The rest I drink myself’. A shy smile spread across his face, indicating that his were not modest portions come meal time.
We shook hands and I climbed back on my bicycle and rode through the town of Salice Salentino and out the other side. It was nearing lunch time and the streets were empty. As I peddled my mind drifted off and I started to imagine some foreign couple sitting down in that nearby restaurant, a carafe of ‘local red’ hitting the table. In my mind I see them beginning to sip from heavy juice glasses, the once-clear glass rubbed white from years of use. ‘You know, everywhere in Italy, the house wine is so excellent’, I hear her say, ‘Sure is’, I hear him say, neither curious of the life of the red liquid before its time in their carafe. As my hunger grew I saw their plates, heaped high with the vegetables of the Salento. I saw the yellow bread, the crust as brown and crackly as old leather. And I saw Nino crawling back into his battered old Ape, pulling away from the same restaurant, the empty demigians bouncing against each other as he heads back home to his own carafe, his dinner still unpicked in his garden.