The Niurumaru Festival in Lecce, 8th to 10th August 2013
A chance discussion with the unstoppable Antonio Tomassini found me invited to be a judge at the Niurumaru Festival in Lecce, the ‘Florence of the South’, in Salento, the heel of Italy. The purpose of the festival was to highlight Salento’s cuisine, wine, and particularly their local grape, Negroamaro. Our brief was to decide the ‘Negroamaro 2013 Prize’ for this local grape variety. A trip to the South of Italy in August to taste local and characterful wines, or doing my VAT in drizzly England? the choice was easy.
As well as judging in the evening (at 9.00pm, which is unusual, I thought, but more of that later), we had time to visit several producers, so I will start with those. They went from large to small. Freshly arrived from London, we headed straight for Cantine Due Palme, in Cellino San Marco, between Brindisi and Lecce. This is the largest cooperative in southern Italy, producing about 7 million bottles per year, 90% of which goes to export, representing a 26million Euro turnover. That comes to about 3.70 Euro a bottle, by the way, if it is all generated by wine sales. They have a very grand conference room that can take up to 800 delegates, for when they want to meet with the 1100 different growers who supply them (hopefully not all of them show up at once).
Boutique winery lovers are sceptical of large operators, but the cooperatives have been instrumental in the modernising and improvement of quality of the Southern Italian wine industry, and this was no exception. All their wines were lovely, but one of the highlights here was the first, a Sparkling Negroamaro Rosé called Melarosa, full of vibrant strawberry fruit and tangy acidity. In 1676, Sir George Etherege wrote of another sparkling wine:
…Then sparkling Champaign
Puts an end to their reign;
It quickly recovers
Poor languishing lovers….
I don’t think we could call ourselves languishing lovers, but this sparkling wine made us recover from the Ryanair experience we had just endured! Due Palme make a range of qualities from the local Negroamaro, Primitivo, and Malvasia Nera, all of them attractive, clean, modern wines, excellent within their price points.
The following day we went to PaoloLeo, a little smaller, at 2 million bottles. Their Negroamaro Rosé Frizzante had an intriguing note of fennel as well as similar red fruit and fresh acidity, and was delicious too. Between the oak aged Orfeo and unoaked Negramante, both made from 100% Negroamaro, I preferred the latter, which showed typical Negroamaro flavours of black fruits, aniceed, spice, and velvety tannins, reminiscent of Hermitage. New oak tends to be reserved for Primitivo wines as many growers think (as they do in the Northern Rhone) that new oak overpowers the character of Negroamaro.
Certainly Cosimo Palamà, of Palamà estate, the third producer we visited, was of that opinion, and most of his wines were unoaked. This estate only produces 250,000 bottles, is entirely run by Palamà, his wife, and son, and he wants to keep it that way to maintain control. The results were mainly really impressive. His (award-winning, more of that later, too) rosé Negroamaro 2012 from the Metiusco range was superb. Palamà describes Negroamaro as the most difficult grape to grow in Puglia, less forgiving than Primitivo, and rosé is the most difficult style. With this one he managed to bring out the red and black fruit character of this grape, without gaining too much harsh tannin and savoury character, which can dominate some of the rosés of the region.
It was Palamà’s reds, though, that blew us away. Palamà believes in multivarietal, unoaked wines, amplifying the ripe black fruit characters without adding intrusive vanilla or smoky flavours, and the wines we saw confirmed the complexity gained from this. The Metiusco (Negroamaro, Primitivo, and Malvasia Nera) 2012 red was massive, exploding with sweet ripe black cherries and blackcurrants, a well-balanced blockbuster. A rare Malvasia Nera single grape called D’Arcangelo 2011 was also dark and spicy, with raisins and sweet fruit, an unusual and characterful wine.
In response to a client’s request, however, Palamà does oak age Mavro 2011, a pure Negroamaro, in new and older oaks. Although made it very clear he didn’t like this wine, it was really very good, smoother and rounder, yes, more commercial, than the others, and showing some oak-derived coffee and chocolate flavours, but still with Negroamaro’s dark fruit freshness and spice. The estate’s other oak aged wines, including the ’75’ range, crafted to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the estate, were similarly complex, rounded, and (perversely to Palamà) delicious. As fellow judge Mike Matthews tweeted: ‘An eager winemaker happy to show his work’. Grazzie, Cosimo Palamà!
For the judging, I come with preconceptions. As a judge at the IWC, I have come to expect wine competitions to be well-organized, punctual occasions; you see where I am going with this? We were due to start at 9.00pm on the 9th August to taste rosé Negroamaros, with the same timetable the following night for the reds. After we had found the wines, located the place in the middle of the piazza for the tasting, got a table and some chairs, and assembled some homemade spittoons on the table, it was 10.30pm. Were the wines tasted blind? Well, no. And the panel all impartial outsiders? Some of them, yes. Did we taste rosés on the 9th, and reds on the 10th as advertised? Oh, wait, it was the other way round.
All the above is irrelevant, though. A wine judging was done on two beautiful nights (well, after the rain stopped on the second) in the middle of the Piazza San Oronzo in Lecce, at a makeshift table with wet chairs re-covered in bin liners by seven enthusiastic wine professionals of varied impartiality, by methods bearing little in common with the IWC. And the whole thing was done with a delightful insouciance, Mediterranean laissez-faire, and Italian charm. A worthy winner was found for each category: in the rosés, Vinicola Palamà’s Metiusco 2012 was one of several very attractive fruity modern rosés, not dominated by tannin or savoury character, a first among equals, possibly. The red trophy went to one less familiar to us, Feudi San Marzano’s “F” 2011, a big and polished modern red with savoury sweet black fruit and velvety tannin.
This was a unique and typically Italian experience presented with huge amounts of energy, charm and patience by the local council, and designed to promote Salento’s wine and gastronomy. It certainly succeeded in that aim; I liked the wines of the regions already, I like them even more now. I encourage everyone to head to Lecce for their holidays, enjoy refreshing fizzes and rosés, and solid reds, sample the local Burrata, a type of super-rich fresh mozzarella, and other local specialities, and if you’re really lucky there will be an open-air concert going on in the Roman amphitheatre which sits as though by chance, available and as good as new, in the middle of this beautiful and historic town. Thank you Fabio Mollica at Voice Communicazione (the event’s marketing agents), Antonio Tomassini, all the growers who contributed, and the Commune di Lecce. Who ever said PR doesn’t work?