The Third National Italian Rosé Competition

Otranto 1

An unusually well taken (for me) photo of an Otranto sunset

Concorso Enologico Nazionale dei Vini Rosati D’Italia Terza Edizione (2014)

As bit of a mouthful? In English, and only slightly abbreviated, this becomes The Third National Italian Rosé Competition, which seems more manageable. The prize-giving conference for this Puglian-inspired yearly event took place in the magnificent setting of Otranto Castle, in the far south of Puglia, the heel of Italy, on Saturday 31st May 2014, and was thirstily witnessed by a packed room of assorted Italian journalists and writers, and a smattering of other European ones, with me and Antonio Tomassini forming the English contingent.

The competition was organized by Regione Puglia and other more national institutions to promote rosés from Italy in general, and, despite a rather relaxed start, it was a well-managed, interesting, and even entertaining event. Highlights of the keynote European speakers included Federico Castellucci, Director General of the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV). The summary of his presentation comprised a page of ominously dry-looking statistics, but he managed through his enthusiasm for Italian wine to bring it to life and make it interesting, motivational even: we learned that France consumes 34% of the world’s rosé, which represents 25% of all wine drunk there, whereas in Italy the same two data are 5%. Italy’s great strength is in export, he showed, with an increase in the last 10 years from 26% to 40% of rosé exported. Castellucci encouraged Italians to practice what they preach and appreciate that rosé is an excellent wine, and drinking it is ‘cool’. Try it yourselves, he implied, rather than just exporting it.

Talking of France… Just how seriously the French take their different wine styles is shown by the existence of the ‘Centre de Recherche et d’Experimentation sur le Vin Rosé’. Many in the trade have seen the very attractive colour chart of rosés they have designed. Gilles Masson, representing them, highlighted from this that dry, lighter-coloured styles are in vogue at the moment (which is good news for this Provence based institution, as it endorses their regional style), but that this may change at any time in this fast-moving market.

Fabrizio Nardoni, Assessore alle Risorse Agroalimentari della Regione Puglia (Agricultural Counsellor for the Puglia Region), resplendent in an electric blue suit, enthused energetically about the quality of the product, and the potential for increased export of Puglian rosé; he really is a Puglian Ambassador. This point was reinforced in a more general Italian sense by Senatore Dario Stefano, in his conclusion. To put this into practice, though, a larger showing of foreign journalists and marketers would have been of benefit; also, a similar event in the UK would bring this underestimated region more to the UK’s attention.

The strong Italian and Puglian interest in this event was further demonstrated by the presence in the audience of the hugely popular (in Italy) singer Albano Carrisi, who is a Puglian wine producer himself, and Palma D’Onofrio, TV Chef and Apulian Icon, who was invited to the stage to present the prizes.
Puglia showed well in the results; a cynic might suggest that this had something to do with the fact that Regione Puglia was the main organizer. However, in fairness, the region does produce 40% of all of Italy’s rosés, which makes it less surprising that 5 of the 18 prizes went to Puglian wines. The full results can be seen on the Vini di Puglia website.

The Museum at Leone de Castris

The Museum at Leone de Castris

Lunch at Masseria Gianca Cisternino

Lunch at Masseria Gianca Cisternino

The following day was spent on a whirlwind tour of the Salento peninsula our way back to Bari, guided by Antonella Millarte, food and cookery expert, and an inexhaustible font of knowledge on Puglia. We made brief stops at three of the award winning producers. At Leone de Castris, as well as the charming ‘Five Roses’, named after the daughters of the original owner, we had a delightfully light and floral Aleatico rosé called Aleikos presented by Dr.ssa Alessandra Leone De Castris, at the ubiquitous Due Palme we retasted the fragrant Melarosa and serious Salice Salentino ‘Selvarossa’, and at Cantine Cardone we met the very energetic Marianna Cardone and Giuseppe Palumbo from Antinori’s estate Tormaresca, further to the north of Puglia, who consults at this estate. Their award winner ‘Provit’ is a Pinot Noir sparkling rosé, crisp and red-fruited. They also make Bordeaux blend wines, with 100% new oak, well managed and stylish but not particularly Puglian, in my opinion, and more characterful wines from indigenous varieties. The lunch nearby at Masseria Gianca Cisternino was fantastic!

The way to a journalist’s heart is through his stomach, to paraphrase an old wife’s tale. The buffet after the awards ceremony would normally have been the highlight of Saturday’s conference, and indeed it was excellent. The presentations that preceded it were so interesting and presented with such passion, though, that it was a close contest! Thank you sincerely to Sergio Maglio for organizing this educational competition, we are thoroughly convinced of the quality and passion of Italian rosé in general, and Puglian in particular. Thank you also to Accademia Apulia UK for providing the cultural bridge between Puglia and the UK.

Fabrizio Nardone talked of the potential of Puglian wine in export. The UK has a rather limited understanding of these wines, largely dominated by inexpensive Primitivo di Puglia; it’s time to bring the show to the UK to show them the real stuff!

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?