NB: A Winter of Wine. This is the first of a 9 part series about the wines of Southern Italy. Much of the information that follows is taken from our upcoming television series on Southern Italian wine. If you’re interested in becoming a beta tester for the new series join our Southern Italian wine Facebook group.
If you could taste only one wine from Southern Italy it should be a Salice Salentino. For me, it sums up the south better than any other. For one, it’s a blend, taking its name from the village rather than the grapes. This is the European tendency, especially in very old growing regions, to acknowledge the territory’s influence before any genetic one. And two, there’s a strong vein of bitterness that runs through it.
And if you think you don’t like bitter, think again.
‘A lot of the rest of Italy sees us, as horse eaters’, says Gianni Cantele. He’s giving me a lesson on pruning but we stop often to talk about larger concepts. ‘But in the hinterland of the Salento- and even the coasts, to a large degree- the diet was based on legumes. Without them no one would be alive here today’.
Perhaps it’s because I teach our local food, but it seems that a historical local cuisine goes largely forgotten when it comes to discussing why a wine tastes the way it does. Some of the examples are world-famous- such as the aggressive tannins in Barolo and how it cuts through their fatty diet. Or astringent Chianti, as the antidote to all the significant animal fats in their cuisine. The thing about Salice Salentino though, is that it’s a wine to developed alongside one of the healthiest diets on the planet. Or put this way: there is a way of eating that has been scientifically proven year after year to make you not die until you’re really, really old. And the diet has a wine that has always gone with it, that’s part of it.
It’s not that Salice Salentino doesn’t go well with fatty meats. It does. It’s just that it doesn’t need them. And where the wine shines brightest just so happens to be the way we all want to eat today. More green vegetables, more legumes, both doused with lots of high quality extra virgin olive oil.
Bitterness it turns out runs through many of our favourite foods. The black, seer marks on anything grilled. The crust of any, well-baked bread. Greens. Most winter vegetables. These are adult flavours, the ones that our taste buds orient to after we develop past the pathological quest for sweetness in our food. (Consider your own personal development and which food you’d choose to indicate your arrival in culinary adulthood. Does it have some bitterness to it?)
Way, way down at the bottom of Italy, here in the Salento, there is a dish called fae e fogghie, or fave e cicoria, a broad (fava) bean mash and boiled chicory. There is something both ancient and hyper modern about the dish. It’s inexpensive, exceedingly healthy, planetarily sustainable, satisfying and no one, ever, under any circumstances would ever, ever drink any other wine with it.
In Italy, if you really want to understand the wine, don’t forget the food that informs it. It’s likely that it will explain a lot.
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