i vini dolci pugliesi: the sweet wines of puglia
It was becoming uncomfortable, what, in a suit and topcoat, my shirt collar rubbing against my neck because of my over-knotted necktie. My right leg was jumpy. My left leg was about to be. The speaker began to wind things up… only to hand the microphone over to yet another ‘distinguished colleague,’ which meant easily another ten minutes of speeches. Normally, it wouldn’t be a problem sitting through another southern Italian wine conference, as there is always something to learn on the subject. You meet some new contacts, taste some great wine and kiss lots and lots and lots of cheeks, most of them hairy. The problem was, was just one marble floor below a giant lavish ballroom was coming to a boil, staffed with hundreds of my bustling brothers and sisters all dressed up, eager to pour the best sweet wines of Puglia has to offer, which is to say, some of the best sweet wine in the world.
My mouth continued to water, but I couldn’t seem to swallow fast enough. I looked over at Annarita, who had already bitten through her bottom lip and seemed content on swallowing her own chin. ‘If the next speaker says anything other than, ‘Mo’ ragà, si scende!’ (‘Alright boys, let’s head down’) I’m going to kill him with my thumb’, she said, her eyes scanning over the shoulders up to the podium, calculating, I think, how long she’d have before they’d pull her off. In my defense, the older signora starting elbowing me first as we descended the stairs, the 500 of us at once. Her husband had been yelling only ‘Angina, Angina’ while grabbing his chest, but you could see he was faking it, that the defibrillator he was carrying wasn’t even a current model. Bursting through the double doors, they both had their glasses extended within seconds, slapping each others’ free hand with techniques only the long-married really master.
And like that, the tasting had begun.
Salvatore poured me two fingers of moscato di Trani and I stepped back into the recesses of the grand ballroom, the warm Mediterranean sun exploding in my glass as I sniffed, scents as unmistakable as those of la Puglia herself.
It’s always struck me as odd that high-end Italian products are so adored abroad, yet our world-class sweet wines fail to find their market, time and time again. Inside of Italy, sweet wines are virtually the exclusive domain of the upper classes, or those like me, decidedly not wealthy or blue-blooded but just someone that has studied wine, appreciating them for their staggering craftsmanship and immense pleasure in the glass.
Late harvest. This is when a producer leaves the fruit on the vine long after others have harvested. Sugar-content goes up as the grapes shrivel, concentrating the sticky nectar. Wine is then made but the alcohol tops out before all the residual sugar can be consumed by the yeasts, leaving a sweet but high-alcohol wine. What’s good about this method? Grapes continue to be influenced by the vine, accentuating the earth from which they came. What’s bad about this method? As as producer, you’re rolling dice each day the fruit stays on the vine, weather-wise. Plus, every animal that flies, crawls or walk on two legs wants at your grapes, growing there in full sight. Covering the grapes can protect the fruit but it’s costly and time-consuming to maintain. In certain, finicky parts of the world, another variant can enter the mix, a parasitic mold that lives on the grape skins and sucks out their moister. Many of the most expensive and sought-after wines of the world are made exactly this way. It’s a sector of the wine world that finances a large of part of the ulcer research each year, such is the worry-some gamble.
Passito. This is picking the grapes and then drying them into raisins, either with time (indoors) or in the sun (outdoors). You know this method already from the rarely remarkable vinsanto made in Central Italy but the wine reaches its zenith in certain parts here of Puglia, Calabria and Sicily. The concentrated nectar is then pressed and fermented, leaving behind a potent, high alcohol wine, almost always seemingly impossibly perfumed. (If you relied on freeze drying rather then the sun, you can make a different wine, with the most obvious of names). What’s good about this method? As a producer, you can put it all behind lock and key, reducing the elements and vermin. What’s bad? Evaporation takes the lion’s share of your labor, transforming the best fruit into sad little mummies. The wines though, can be stunning.
Naturally sweet wines. (vini dolci naturali). This is when, under the right conditions, a wine maker can coax the sugar content into mammoth levels that guarantee both alcohol AND residual sugar, and most of this is done with vineyard management (such as removing grapes earlier in the year, removing leaves that shield the ripening effects of the sun, etc.) What’s difficult with this method? Same three rules as those of real estate. If you’re not in a really sunny part of the world, with great drainage in your soil, it’s not going to happen. And, if you’re not careful, you can cook the fruit right there on the vine, leaving behind a fat and flabby wine, without the needed acid to keep the wine mouth-watering.
It’s also worth noting that here in Italy, those that appreciate sweet wine rarely appreciate sweet deserts, and I myself fall into this camp. Hand me a glass filled with few fingers of some great passito after a long and sprawling meal and you can keep the cake, cookies or candy for yourself. Good sweet wines linger in the glass, as if they continue to smolder between sips. Pour one after a meal, sit back and talk with friends around the table and tell me if it’s not one of your better wine drinking experiences.
It’s all there, all your favourite elements in drinking wine, right there in your glass.
I dump out the rest of my glass as Federica, who graduated with me, asks ‘Avvino il vostro calice’?
She wants to pour me a splash of the next wine to rinse my glass before pouring me the next one. Charmingly, she uses the old archaic formal tense with me, something you only really only hear here in the south. It’s the first time I’ve seen her AIS uniform, her pride enough as she pours to make my throat thicken and my eyes to well.
Long before I move away from the twelve or so of the hundreds of whites into the twelve or so of the hundreds of reds, it strikes me that this part of the world is inherently different, richer, in a way that can’t be typed onto the front of a brochure for tourists or the retro label of any bottle of wine. Away from hundred point scales, away from magazine write up or impressing anyone with your good taste, that this how folks choose to spend a Saturday night, chatting about wine without any sort of sense of inflated self.
And it’s here, here in the centre of the grand ballroom, with the rumble of laughing voices, the clinking of glasses, that I plunge my nose deep into my glass and take in a distinct Mediterranean summer, every bit as sweet and profound and inviting, when lived for the second time.