‘But what do you REALLY eat? What do you REALLY drink when you’re not teaching’, is a question I’m asked nearly every week. Most of the time the answer is boring: The same stuff I eat and drink during our classes, that is, la cucina tipica salentina.
And it’s mostly true too.
But every so often I’ll give myself a little slack and drink wines that are not from the Salento. When that happens, one wine shows up on my dinner table more often than any other. That it’s made by a massive, modern, heavily-invested Tuscan-owned winery might surprise you. It did me too. At least at first.
I was lucky enough to have been able schedule a visit with Vito Farella, who manages Tormaresca, Tenuta Bocca di Lupo, an impeccably-maintained estate in Central Puglia. He couldn’t be nicer. Nor more generous with his time.
As we walk he shows me the care given at even the smallest of detail. There is none of that ‘my grandfather used to’ that many of us here are guilty of, the replacement of quality with cute, little Old World tales.
‘It’s either in the bottle or not’, says Vita as our soles softly sink into the sandy soil.
We walk in silence for a few more minutes. ‘Or you know, it simply isn’t’, he says, revealing that he’s actually struck by the conversation himself. ‘And I’ve very proud of our wine’.
He has ever reason to be as I couldn’t be more in love with it myself.
The vineyard could easily be in Napa, Walla-Walla, Marlborough or Margaret river. It’s that odd mix of stunning natural beauty but without any real sense of history: Wine making in the New World. Walking the grounds I feel instantly transported someplace else, some place beyond the Mezzogiorno.
And about the only thing that reminds me of what part of the world I am is the not-unpleasant smell of raw tobacco, a smell you’ll find in many of wines of Puglia. It’s not the smell of a pack of cigarettes. It’s smell of a smoke shop, that heady mix of oily brown-red tobacco, stored in cedar boxes.
As we walk the grounds, a fox trots between the rows capped with yellow-green leaves. Wincing with his tongue out, he glances in our direction, aware of us but hardly disturbed.
Vito introduces me to Valentina Gambino, whose job it is is to market the wine, all around the world. ‘Once or twice’, I squeak out when she asks me if I’ve ever tried Bocca di Lupo. I’m suddenly very aware that I can’t hold her gaze for very long without feeling uncomfortable. She smiles at me, clearly used to men being rendered silly by her easy, southern beauty.
‘Actually, I laid down a 6 cases for my 40th birthday’, I say, feeling even more adolescent for having responded, ‘once or twice’.
‘So how was the wine’, she asks.
‘I’ll have to let you know when I turn 40′, I say, feeling a strange red pressure in my face.
I’m invited for lunch.
I’m served some incredibly-fresh straciatella, ripped little ‘rags’ of fresh cheese coated with fresh cream. And their chardonnay. (Wisely I hold my tongue about the presence of ‘international’ variatals being brought to Puglia. I couldn’t be more against it).
Then things change and I’m served stuffed cabbage, rich with gamy pancetta, radicchio and cabbage. And oversized glass of Bocca Di Lupo, an Aglianico.
The wine is complex, fruity yet dry. The flavour is a sort of slow-moving whirl-pool, where the force is undeniable but somehow still gentle, coaxing, in a way. And there is the tobacco and black liquorice as well, so indicative of the wines of Puglia.
It has all the things I look for in a great wine. Power yet grace. Complexity yet harmony. And that it so beautifully pairs with complex foods as well reminds how forward thinking I must have been when laying down the wine for the special day shared with friends.
After lunch Valentina shows me 1000 barrels, all humming along in their aging process.
The room is heady with the smell of spilled wine, of wet rocks and hard wood, the smell of every good aging cellar.
As she and I walk and talk and giggle through the stunningly beautiful vineyard, I think about the perfect barrels down in the cellar and how the wine improves as it ages, and why that is so seductive as a concept to those of us how are about to face any birthday that ends with a ‘0′.