The Niurumaru Festival in Lecce, 8th to 10th August 2013

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?




At the Embassy of Japan, 16th July 2013

The IWC Award Winning Sake Tasting at the pleasantly cool Japanese Embassy was a welcome relief from the swelteringly hot weather radiating from the pavements of Piccadilly during one of our rare moments of really proper summer weather. Despite the limited awareness of sake among the general public, the place was heaving with sake lovers, enjoying the class and freshness of decorated, high-quality, chilled sakes. There’s a feeling that the category needs to reach a wider audience, but no-one seems to know how to achieve that.

Sam Harrop MW, champion of Japanese sake, and one of the Sake Chairman of the IWC, was effusive: “What we need is to get the wine trade behind this to create sales. It’s about to happen.” He opined. I really hope he’s right. I tasted sakes from all over Japan, served by enthusiastic and helpful producers who had come all this way for this occasion; delicate, pale sakes from Dewazura Brewery in Yamagata, a more intense Junmai Daigingo from Asahi Shuzo in Yamaguchi, full-bodied yet citrus Omachi rice sake from Fukuchiyo Shuzo in Saga, and two oddities, exotic koshu sakes, aged to reveal flavours much more akin to sherry than sake: from Enoki Shuzo (‘The King of Koshu’, according to Harrop) in Hiroshima, a Koshu Kijoshu aged for 8 years, which showed amontillado sherry flavours, very nutty, and gunflint aromas, and from Katoukitchibee Shouten in Fukui, Born Koshu, aged for 10 years in French oak, with caramel, smoky, and aldehydic palate with a sweet attack, yet dry finish, similar to a dry Oloroso. I had never come across a sake aged so long in oak, but we are all still novices in this field, even after several year’s of study. These sakes are varied, interesting drinks, worthy of a wider audience. A quick internet search gives the picture among the mutiples: Waitrose sell Sawanotsuru Deluxe Sake, with no product information other than it is made from rice and water (which is reassuring; no rocket-fuel mentioned). Tesco seem to have dropped the distinctly ordinary Choya Sake they used to sell, thank goodness, but show Doragon Sake, which isn’t even Japanese; it’s made in the Netherlands. I gave up the search in despair after that. At present, a few enlightened independent retailers and ‘Western’ restaurants sell interesting ones, but the bulk of the sales come from the niche corner of Japanese restaurants, which puts it a way away from mainstream.

An interesting market comparison is provided by Oke Nordgren, a Swedish sake importer, and on the sake panel at the IWC. He has been importing wine in Sweden for ages, but discovered Sake, and, after a few years dealing in both, started devoting all his time to fine Japanese sake in 2007. He, too, sees himself on a learning curve: “Since devoting myself full time to this wonderful drink, I have tasted more than 5500 sakes, he said, and I am still learning. The producers, too, are learning to make sakes more attuned to Western palates, fruitier and fresher.” I paraphrase, but that is the gist of it. The Swedes are more inquisitive and nerdy about wine, and this rigour has moved into sake; go to the website of the Systembolaget, the Swedish alcohol retail monopoly, and you find no less than 12 different sakes, both Japanese and American; and bear in mind this is a government-run, boring and old-fashioned retailer with stores in every village and town in Sweden. They are still well behind the US in terms of awareness and availability, but even so they are in a different league to us, and we could learn from them. Americans have a huge Japanese population, which has driven their sake interest, but the Swedes don’t; no, they have Oke Nordgren, Sake Champion of the Swedish wine trade, spreading the gospel to good effect. We have Sam Harrop, among others, but the gospel so far seems to have spread out from its Japanese base only to a niche of wine nerds like myself. We talk a fair amount about sake, I even present a sake tasting occasionally to interested amateurs, or at the launch party of a Japanese car, but how many cars can you launch in any given year?

I would love Sam to be right that Sake is the ‘Next Big Thing’ (he didn’t say that, by the way, I just wanted to see what it looks like). The wine trade need to rally round this wonderful, interesting product. Sure, there is customer resistance; it’s an acquired taste, best served with food; many people still think it’s a spirit; it doesn’t cost £4.99 a bottle; or they’ve only experienced the warmed rocket fuel previously masquerading as sake. Blossom Hill is an easier sell. Sake is a hard sell, but I have had brief moments of reward (that’s intellectual reward, by the way, not the financial variety as yet) when I serve a chilled ginjo style, fragrant sake with a simple, unctuous, perfectly oily slice of salmon, and see a flash of recognition in my audience’s eyes ‘so that’s what he was banging on about’! Oke treated us to a five-minute rapid-fire summary of the effects that the different operations in production have on the final taste of a sake (and there are, believe me, a lot of them; it’s complicated). “If you’re ever bored or lonely one evening, give me a call, and I’ll fill your evening with sake facts”, he promised. Maybe we need to take him up on his offer.