In Apulia, Emancipation For the Grapes

By R. W. APPLE Jr.
 
CASTELLANETA, Italy — IN 1997, Mark Shannon, a California wine consultant, flew to Sicily to help a client trying to complete a bulk wine deal. Traveling around the island by car, he met Elvezia Sbalchiero, another consultant, who comes from Friuli, in the far northeastern corner of Italy. One thing led to another, as it often does, and eventually the two formed a personal and professional partnership.
Now they own a company called Fusione -- guess why? -- based here in Apulia, in the heel of the Italian boot. Drawing on grapes grown by up to 1,600 small farmers in the area, he makes and she markets wines that have scored an astonishing success all around the globe, with projected sales this year 15 times as big as those in the winery's first year, 1998. The wines are called A-Mano, meaning handmade, and by far the best known is a robust red made from a once-obscure grape named primitivo.
 
''We created or played a large part in creating a clean, modern-style primitivo and taking it around the world,'' Mr. Shannon told my wife, Betsey, and me when we stopped last month at the couple's whitewashed farmhouse in the ambling hills about 45 minutes south of Bari. ''We work with third- and fourth-generation growers, who tend tiny plots of very old, low-yielding vines.''
Ms. Sbalchiero, 41, interjected: ''We started a bit of a social revolution here. At first the farmers didn't get it, but eventually they came to understand and trust us. We paid them cash, and we paid promptly, which no one had ever done before.''
These days, said Mr. Shannon, 46, ''all the growers know my car, and they stop me on the road and say, 'Come to see my grapes -- they're as good as the ones you're buying.' ''
 
DNA testing by Carole Meredith, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, established a few years ago that primitivo is a descendant of a grape called crljenak kastelanski, widely grown in the 18th and 19th centuries on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. (A crljenak cross with dobricic, plavac mali, is grown in that area today.) California's zinfandel, she showed, is genetically the same as primitivo, though how it crossed the ocean remains a subject of considerable dispute.
Apulian primitivo and zin are not twins, of course; climate, soil and vinification all help to shape a wine's look, aroma and flavor, along with the grape variety. But the two share several characteristics: both are fruit-rich, chewy, sometimes lush wines, a deep violet-red in color, often too high in alcoholic content for comfort (a ferocious 15.5 percent in some extreme cases), but much more subtle if carefully handled.
For years, tank trucks of rough, raisiny primitivo headed north every fall, destined for use, unacknowledged, to add heft to Chianti, Barbaresco and even red Burgundy. But now, tamed into ''a gentle giant,'' as the wine writer Burton Anderson puts it, primitivo can stand on its own sturdy feet.
 
Mr. Shannon's winery, in the nearby town of Laterza, is absolutely immaculate. He uses plastic corks to further minimize the possibilities of contamination. And he uses refrigeration at every step of the way to maintain control, chilling the grapes from the minute they arrive from the fields, chilling the fermenting tanks and shipping the bottled wine in chilled containers. When A-Mano's huge compressors are fired up, he joked, ''the lights flicker all over Apulia.''
The partnership's big break came when Neil Empson, one of the leading exporters of Italian wines to the United States, tasted A-Mano primitivo and added it to his range. Other A-Mano labels have been added since, including a reserve bottling, Prima Mano, produced only in extraordinary years from two exceptionally old vineyards.
''We take pride,'' Mr. Shannon said, ''at a time when the American market is awash in mediocre $35 wines, in making a food-friendly bottle that can retail for $10 or $11.''
 
Fusione is not the only producer of high-quality primitivo. Several of the others are grouped in an unusual organization called the Accademia dei Racemi, not a true cooperative but an association in which each member makes his own wine and joins with the others for marketing support and technical advice. Based in Manduria, between the old cities of Taranto, founded by the ancient Greeks, and Lecce, which dates from Roman times, the group includes value-for-money labels like Masseria Pepe, Pervini and the stylish Felline, made by Gregory Perrucci, son of a bulk-wine producer.
 
Elsewhere, other changes are afoot, and some of them involve not red but white wines. Traditionally, Apulian whites have been regarded as second-class citizens, although at their best, the vegetal, slightly astringent wines produced around the town of Locorotondo and elsewhere from the little-known verdeca grape can be the kind of partners Apulia's enticing swordfish, turbot, sea bass and mullet deserve.
Lifting a leaf from the book of Planeta, the Sicilian winery that has demonstrated in recent years that southern Italy is not too hot to make superior chardonnay, several Apulian producers have succeeded lately with that cool-climate grape. One that Betsey and I enjoyed at Il Melograno, a quietly luxurious hotel near Monopoli on the Adriatic coast, was Laureato, a round, beautifully balanced product of the relatively young Vetrere winery, which is run by the sisters Annamaria and Francesca Bruni. Like many good New World chardonnays, it has luscious overtones of banana and pineapple.
 
Bonny Doon, the California operation of the pun-prone Randall Grahm, markets an Apulian red based on the Uva di Troia variety, called Il Circo ''La Violetta.'' Its vivid label shows a liberally tattooed woman, and Mr. Grahm has promoted it as a creamy, quaffable yet complex wine that avoids ''the indignities of internationalism and the ravages of the new wood order.''
Piero Antinori, the eminent Tuscan producer, has taken the plunge into Apulia as well, under the Tormaresca label, and one of his first big winners is a refined, lightly oaked chardonnay called Pietrabianca. This is produced from grapes grown in the northern part of the region, near Frederick II's extraordinary eight-sided Castel del Monte, but the Antinori interests stretch farther south as well, with extensive holdings around San Pietro Vernotico, a village near the Crusader port of Brindisi.
 
Experimenting with varieties relatively little grown in Apulia, like merlot and cabernet sauvignon, Tormaresca has made a major splash. I especially enjoyed the Bocca di Lupo red from the Castel del Monte area, made with cabernet and aglianico, which is used for aristocratic, long-lived Taurasi in Campania. It stood up well to Il Falcone, Rivera's more traditional longtime leader in Castel del Monte.
''Land is terribly cheap here,'' said Matthew Watkins, the wine-loving Canadian husband of Roberta Guerra, who manages Il Melograno. ''Antinori will show the way, and other big guys will come in after him. He's very big and very powerful, and he is making superb wines. I only hope that he doesn't displace the little guys.''
One morning during our time in Apulia I headed north from lovely Lecce, Apulia's Baroque marvel, with Giuseppe Malazzini, who works for Agricole Vallone, to learn something about Graticciaia, one of Apulia's wine treasures. It is made from negroamaro grapes (the name means ''black bitter'' in Italian) harvested in good vintages from a small plot of 60-year-old vines, unsupported by trellises, that are allowed to grow into bushy, five-foot-high shapes called alberelli, or little trees, with trunks as thick as a grown man's forearm. Only 10,000 to 20,000 bottles a year are produced.
 
The key to Graticciaia is a process in which the grapes are dried on reed mats for three or four weeks in the open air, concentrating their aroma and flavor, before they are made into a soft, dark, well-focused red wine, with just a hint of vanilla.
Over lunch at an old bougainvillea-clad masseria, or farmhouse, where the Vallone sisters live, Donato Lazzari, the company manager, told me that the idea for the Amarone-like wine had come to him and to Severino Garofano, the wine consultant who has probably done more than anyone to lift the level of Apulian wine, on a flight south from Milan. Their inspiration, he said, came from a wine made in days of yore for the marriage of a daughter.
 
Vallone also makes more conventional wines from negroamaro, the most basic of which are designated as Salice Salentino, after the area where they are produced, far down the Apulian ''heel.'' Francesco Candido is another player in this mass market, as is Leone de Castris, but the dominant Salice Salentino producer, so far as sales in the United States go, has long been Cosimo Taurino, a firm founded by a former pharmacist and carried forward since his death a few years ago by his son Francesco.
Taurino makes two highly acclaimed blends of negroamaro (85 percent) and malvasia nera (15 percent), Patriglione and Notarpanaro -- each from a single vineyard. Both are dense, intensely garnet-colored and slow to open in decanter or glass. Although Patriglione costs more and wins higher marks from critics, I find Notarpanaro much less cumbersome with food.
Three more recent introductions compete in the super-premium negroamaro sweepstakes. These are the arrestingly labeled Nero, made by Conti Zecca; Le Braci, produced by Mr. Garofano, the consultant, who works on several of the others, too; and Masseria Maime from Tormaresco.
 
Some experts see unlimited possibilities for Apulian wines, across the board from the less expensive ones, perhaps best suited to simple trattoria meals, to the top-of-the-line bottlings that aim to stand eventually among Italy's best. Others are much more skeptical, like Joseph Bastianich, a partner in the restaurant Babbo in New York, a grower and a wine author. He praises Apulian reds as ''terrific value, terrific with food,'' but doubts that even the best of them will ever loom large in the global market.
New Yorkers and visitors to the city can judge for themselves at I Trulli, a restaurant at 122 East 27th Street, owned by Nicola Marzovilla, an Apulian, which usually has at least a dozen wines from the region on its list. Vino, an all-Italian wine shop across the street, stocks most of them.
Photos: SOME THINGS DON'T CHANGE -- Apulia's pottery is classic; its wines demand attention. (Photo by Peppe Avallone for The New York Times)(pg. F1); CLIMATE COUNTS -- Locorotondo, below, is an Italian winemaking town in Apulia. Inset, Elvezia Sbalchiero and Mark Shannon are known for their robust reds.
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