Friday, August 7, 2015

The Pride of Manduria, Pirro Varone

Okay so maybe I like wines from southern Italy because they’re usually not phony bolognas. They’re not itching for aristocracy. They’re happy in their blushing grape skins. So today I’d like to share some background and tasting notes of a wonderful, hidden gem of a property called Pirro Varone from a sleepy town, Sorani, in the heart of Manduria. The roots of Manduria go way back. Pliny the Elder cited the area in his magnum opus Naturalis Historico. The ruthless Saracens crushed it in the 10th century. Over time, the town was rebuilt, but not until the 18th century did it take back its old name, Manduria. It sits in the region of Puglia, which once upon a not-so-long-time-ago was hailed with the dubious distinction as “Europe’s Wine Cellar”.

Vast improvement have been made in recent years. There is quite a contrast in style and quality depending on where grapes are sourced and who is at the helm of production. Wines closet to the Salento peninsula tend to be the fruit bombs with high alcohol and yes wines closer to Taranto, near the Ionian Sea seem to be more vibrant. These are gross generalizations.

These past few years, as I’ve had the chance to taste and retaste the Pirro Varone wines, I’ve been surprised how, time and again, they keep getting better. Pietro Ribezzo, the talented winemaker, produces some of the best Primitivo anywhere on this mudball. What distinguishes Pietro’s Primitivo di Manduria from the other sluff is the fresh varietal expression. The alberello-trained vines are grown in black earth with tufaceous layers. He also grows olives.

Despite what you might think the grape name Primitivo refers to the fact that it is an early-ripener and has nothing to do with it being primitive though it has been around for a long time. It’s a constituent varietal of Salice Selentino, and is also related to that Hemingway of a grape, Zinfandel, by way of a distant relative from Croatia called Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Forget what preconceived notions you have of Primitivo. Pirro Varone’s wines revel in authenticity and pure essence, none of the cosmetic fluff you get with certain producers trying to beef-up for point scores. No mouthful of stewed prunes. No rubber-bally aftertaste, and no wood. Not a splinter in his wines. Behold the redder fruit on the palate, a jubilant medley of raspberry, tamarind, and dried herbs. Spicy notes sneak in mid-palate. The bright acidity tames the ample alcohol. It wears its 15% ABV like an elephant in capezios. It’s a liquid tour jeté.

His entry level Casa Vecchia exudes more rusticity and is ever so more gracile, sourced from 15 — 20 year-old vines. It’s a late night jammer (think alto sax not fruit preserve) whereas the Pirro Varone (coming from 50-year-old vines) is a studio artist with a bit more polish.

Pietro farms organically and is ICEA-certified organic. His desert Primitivo ‘Tocy’ (no snarky remarks) is fantastic. Sure the fruit is super-ripe, but the viscosity never gets anywhere near syrupy, its consistency and mouthfeel are supported by a tangy finish.

Besides Primitivo, Pietro plants Grisola, an organoleptic anomaly he found one day chilling amongst his grapes. You will be hard-pressed to find any other living soul or zombie winemaker making wine from this varietal. Grisola is the George Plimpton of red grapes— swilling with personality and virtually impossible to pigeonhole. He also plants Minutolo, a white which is thought to be a distant cousin of Fiano, but is a distinct varietal that tastes like a melonball dipped in gingerbread.

The property’s name is an homage to a distinguished merchant, Giovan Battista Varone, who lived in the area during the 16th century. Pirro Varone was his son. He was a Jewish nobleman who converted to Catholicism, and eventually went on to become a great philanthropist, building the first hospital in the area and built a charitable foundation that is still going today.

Let’s face it, Puglia is a sunbaked seaside region. The climate seems perfect for fruit bombs with high alcohol, and it usually delivers, but when you find a sumptuous, well-structured Primitivo you are practically raring to belt out “Some Enchanted Evening”. If I had the pipes or thicker walls in my apartment, I sure would.

Sip and Swirl.

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