(Photo: Elio Minoia and Marina Saponari)
I visited in November, and, even in the fall, a few locals were enjoying the beach on the Ionian Sea. At the winery, Marina Saponari, head of sales, and winemaker Elio Minoia met me with warm smiles. The winery shares its history with Agricole Vallone, the Pugliese winery famous for producing the Amarone-like Gratacciaia wine. Their first vineyard was planted by Donato Vallone in the town of Cutrofiano in 1820, and the vineyard is still used today. "Valle dell'Asso bottled its wine for the first time in 1995," said Elio.
Mattie: What are some of the ways that you keep the soil healthy in your vineyards?
Elio: We have been certified organic since 1996, and organic and dry farming are meant to create the perfect balance of microelements and colloids in the soil. Microelements are necessary to preserve the soil in good health, colloids are useful to preserve water. Because we do not have to irrigate, our plants tend to avoid the illnesses caused by humidity. Further, to fight the high temperatures in Puglia we till the soil in a particular way that helps reduce water evaporation and promote thermal insulation.
For anyone who doesn't speak wine science, Elio is saying that he keeps the healthy organisms in the soil happy, and this makes his plants happy, viz. healthy microbial activity protects grapevines from disease and droughts.
M: How large are your vineyards?
Elio: The winery has 198 acres of vineyards. With more locations, we have more chances to grow the right fruit. The vineyard rows are planted in the direction of the wind (which is strong year-round because southern Puglia stands in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea!) so that air is constantly circulating, which helps to protect the vines from powdery mildews and parasites. The vines are trained in the cordone speranato style, so the vines have one thick trunk and the canes are trained along wires so that they grow parallel to the ground. Without irrigation and with healthy, strong soil, the grapes are more concentrated.
To fully appreciate the power of the wind in Puglia, look at its location in the middle of the sea:
Like the contradictory bright and dark fruit of its wines, Puglia is a land of contrasts, and though the region receives very little rain during the months of May, June, and July, ground water is rarely a problem. The land has a lot of limestone, and one of the largest aqueducts in all of Europe runs beneath it. As a result, the winery practices dry farming.
Elio opened a steel lid in the winery floor, revealing a cement cistern.
Elio: The first cisterns made of cement were built in 1933. Then, at the end of the Second World War, we got rid of all the old wooden casks and replaced them with cisterns. They are traditional in Puglia because, considering the high summer temperature, they kept the temperature not higher than 17°C even without any technical support. The walls of the cisterns are vitrified with epoxy resin, in this way when the cistern is empty it is possible to wash it, to sanitize and dry. The resin is able to have smooth faces to avoid porosity and to better guarantee hygiene.
As I mentioned, limestone is the dominant component of Puglia's geology. Farmers have stored olive oil in massive cisterns carved out of the ground for hundreds and many even thousands of years (Puglia produces roughly 40% of all the olive oil in Italy). Cement is rapidly becoming a popular method of aging wine around the world.
Elio and Marina led me into an intimate tasting room with hundreds of owls in it. Fortunately, they weren't taxadermied—they were toys! Both the winery and the town of Galatina use the owl as a symbol. Don Gino collects these owls, often receiving them as gifts from all over the world. I particularly liked the set of nesting owls.
M: How would you describe the style of your wine?
Elio: The wine that we produce must represent the terroir, and it must be clean and as natural as possible. We do not use barrique (note: barrique is the French word for barrel, and in Italy the word is used to distinguish small barrels from botti, which are the absolutely massive Italian wine barrels. Barriques are what we call regular ol' oak barrels), we only use botti, and most of our wines see stainless steel or cement. In total quantity, we produce about a half million bottles of wine a year, and about 50% of that wine is sold as vino sfuso (bulk wine). Our vino sfuso is sold in the UK and all over Europe.
We sat down and Marina asked me what I wanted to taste. Valle dell'Asso makes a fifteen unique wines, four of which are whites, two rosés, and two dessert wines. I really enjoyed the 2010 Galatina Rosé, which is made using the Saignée method. Negroamaro grapes are macerated for about 10 hours, then about 10% is remove, which becomes the Galatina Rosé. The nose was very fresh with strawberry and burnt caramel notes. It had a strong acidic structure and medium, soft tannins. I also liked the 2008 Organic Negroamaro, which was well balanced with dark plum and blackberry fruit. The 2006 Piromáfo was the real knock out, showing complexity, expressiveness, and a highly unique fire-like intensity. The word piromáfo is used to describe the brilliant red top soil around the town of Galatina (terra rossa). Like the locals, it has Greek roots, and the word means "fire fighter." Elio reminded me that a huge percentage of the grape varieties grown in Italy were first grown in Puglia. Puglia was one of the first areas in Italy to be civilized, thanks to the Greeks.
I liked most of the wines I tried, but I somewhat disappointed by the 2010 Galatina Bianco—the same wine that I'd drank so much of when living in Lecce. Back then, I was drinking the 2008 vintage. The 2010 vintage still had some of those delicious tropical fruit aromas and flavors that I remembered, but they weren't as vibrant as the 2008 vintage, and 2010 was likely a cooler year. I'll have to return to taste the 2011!
Elio and Marina walked us out, and, as I was getting into my car I notice this silhouette of a bottle of wine carved into a block of stone. I think it serves as a perfect metaphor for what Valle dell'Asso is doing: they are growing grapes out of limestone, aging wine in cement cisterns carved out of the ground, respecting the soil and the environment, and producing fine wine in a highly challenging environment. I can picture Elio standing among his vines, picking up a stone, and wringing wine from it!
Valle dell'Asso welcomes visitors to taste their wines, and, like so many of the amazing wineries in Puglia, they offer free tasting. Take advantage of it! Here are the wine-tasting details:
Open for Wine Tasting: Mon-Fri and Saturday morning
Summer Hours: 8am-1pm and 4pm-7pm
Winter Hours: 8am-1pm and 3pm-6pm
Price with food: 5 euros
Wine Tasting Only: Free
The winery can prepare complete meals and tastings for large groups.