Today was the practice run: how do you stuff a month’s worth of life into two bicycle bags? Computers. Cameras. Notes. Street clothes. Bicycle clothes. Cables and chargers for everything. A first-aid kit. Some really nice cognac, kept apart, for some reason that escapes me right now, from the first-aid kit.
We needed to do a practice run. And our bikes did wobble from all the dead weight and stiff muscles. Aside from the trial outing, I had also wanted to show la Gia the 10th century abbey a couple of hours north of my city of Lecce. As to which wine we’d drink, I had been saving a special bottle for the occasion: Gianfranco Fino’s ES, a Primitivo di Manduria, famous for its kick. Turns out, I couldn’t have chosen a better wine to start our time around the sun-drenched south. Before the first lick hits her lips, she begins to giggle as if she were considering the dessert tray and just spotted an old favourite. The perfumes are dazzling.
It’s hard to conceptulize that primitivo actually ripens earlier than other grapes, as the wine it produces tend to be soaked in ripe, red fruit flavours, as if the grape has absorbed more sun, rather than less. Primitivo tends to scream and holler almost overly-rip cherries and plums, that heady, heat-induced smell of cherry compote simmering on the back of the stove. Only imagine the cherries perfect, really ripe, dripping with fecundity, with as much cherry-ness as a cherry can hold. Then a little more.
That’s what a good Primitivo di Manduria can offer, and Fino’s is that, plus. At 16.5 percent alcohol, it’s a marching bass drum of a wine, yet perfectly balanced between acids (not easy to do, as with the sun’s heat, the acid tends to fall away rather quickly) and still youngish tannins (this, the 2007).
La Gia sighs as she sips, the flavours lingering beyond any wine I’ve had in recent memory. The tell-tale flavours of Southern Italian wine are all here. Cedar tobacco box. Balsalmic vinegar, the good stuff. Mediterranean herbs, such as thyme and a tinge of bitter almonds. Only with Fino’s wine, all of this is applified to ”11′.
Like all grapes, primitivo tends to pick up the flavours of the soil in which its raised, so that the grape demonstrates different characteristics, depending on growing zone. I don’t see any reason to I hide my own prejudice for its place in the Salento, where aside from the coddled-fruit flavours, it leans towards a minerality, a trait needed to match most foods. If you are from the New World and drink wine as a cocktail, you’ll tend to love Primitivo di Manduria, a wine that can begin to mimic elements of port. If you tend towards the Old World habit of drinking your wine with food, you’ll likely really appreciate that little bit of mineral kick a Salentino version.
We finish half the wine and pack the rest away for dinner tonight.
We’ll sleep back in Lecce and then depart by rental car, up Puglia around Basilicata, down Calabria only to drop the car in Sicily, just after crossing the strait of Messina on a late night ferry. It will be a full month before I pass here again, on the way home to my home in Lecce.
But please follow me along as I travel Southern Italy this next month. You might just find your favourite new wine. You might begin to see Southern Italy as more than just the discounted version of the North, as a different land, a different people, the Italy that you hope to find but never quite seem to.
As for me, it’s the place I love more than any other. I’d love to show you just what’s so special about our wine.