The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Morella. Bravery, Biodynamics, Isolation and Fish Markets.

Where was I mentally on my last day in Puglia? I felt inspired. I felt physically great, running through infinite landscapes of olive and plum and pomegranate had brought me into a vivid present tense. All the pasta was working miracles. Isolation in an empty 16th century farmhouse provided focus and loneliness in equal parts. A next-to-last day loomed. I would traverse mountains in Campania, to see a few places at the 11th hour. Traveling south from Rome, I made off-the-cuff appointments on a hunch and a recommendation, doubling down on the power of luck and chance.

A lack of bravery extended my southern excursion to Morella. Manduria isn’t the easiest place to reach. After an alternatingly drab and gorgeous drive from Trani to Bari to Taranto, highways gave way to two-lane roads through busy small towns, red lights and potholes: a slog. Malfunctioning GPS took me to a fish market on a one-way road only 100 street numbers from the actual cellar, close but simultaneously inscrutably far from our meeting point. I wove through a warren of stone-walled side streets and narrow unidirectional alleys to find the actual spot… but Lisa had split. Her mum was at the farm from Queensland, and it was time for lunch. I was late.

Armed with compass coordinates, I set out to find Lisa and Gaetano’s house in the hinterlands. Their street has no name and no sign. At least twice I parked at the end of it, and peered down a dusty gravel expanse, with no appreciable visible structures to the horizon. I circled. I went down a couple of incorrect long driveways. Eventually I grew a spine, and set off down the right road. Their new house is located a mile or two through the olive trees and bush vines. It seamlessly combines new construction with very old stone stables. Lisa said there are still artisans active in her area that build houses using centuries-old methods. The mason she employed didn’t use any power tools to cut and build her stone home. It’s a beautiful multi-story place with a panoramic view of the landscape to the sea(s.) On a clear day Lisa has spotted the mountains of Basilicata, across the water to the west. 

I like the linguistics of English speakers from faraway places. To my ear Lisa makes quirky word choices. It could be her Anglophone isolation, an Australian living in Puglia who speaks Italian most hours of her days. But Lisa is a character. Her syntax and florid vocabulary could stem from individuality alone. I like that she says groovy a lot. I like that her vocal intonations are in a register I associate with positivity, even when she’s talking about the terrible job done by their trash collector, or the hegemonic power of crop science corporations.

Lisa and Gaetano have been buying vineyards. They have 12 hectares of bush vines now, on 18 hectares of land. Manduria is drier than most of Puglia. During harvest 2016, average rainfall in the larger region was 200ml. Morella received 100ml. Rainfall in Manduria this year was 2/3 of the town’s average total.

Morella is certified biodynamic. “Biodynamics is about looking after the workers,” Lisa said. The farm is 70 meters above sea level, and surrounded by water at a distance of only a few kilometers. They are on the “instep” of the boot. “We are living here to make better grapes.” They hope to build a new winery on the same gravel road in the next year. Lisa likes to stand on her rooftop and watch fog roll in with the sirocco winds from the south. Because of the peculiar shape of the land and water surrounding Manduria, the fog bends in odd patterns, passing the vineyards by initially, before flowing back to the farm from the north.

Manduria is a warm place. Primitivo is well-suited to its local mesoclimate. Average temperature here in summer is 30 degrees Celsius. Dry winds form the north can quickly reduce humidity in the vineyards by up to 45%. “Wind is the dominant thing here,” Lisa says. 

The wines show this regional warmth in their ripeness. Because of Lisa’s work in the cellar and perspective on quality wine (she has friends in many wine regions) the Primitivos at Morella are also dry. It is common in the region to encounter sweet versions, often made sweet post-fermentation.

The 2015 Mezzogiorno (Fiano) is really subtle. It has better precision and delicacy of flavor than many cool-climate whites I encounter. It does the trick of being bright, without noticeable acidity screeching across your palate. This seamlessness is a marker of deft winemaking for me.

The 2013 Morella Primitivo Malbeck is made from fruit grown on 40-year-old bush vines. It’s very nice: savory. Malbeck has a history here in Puglia, which is why Lisa and Gaetano chose to use the local spelling for the grape.

The 2013 Old Vines bottling (from an average of 85-year-old vines) and La Signora are both very good. Intense, dry, ripe, meaty, substantial reds, with an uncommon degree of finesse and complexity.

We took a walk through their fields after our tasting. It was the right way to end a week of working in Puglia. The diverse sub-plots of vines were striking. It’s easy to notice where one old farmer’s work ended, and another’s began. Lisa’s a great guide: quick-witted, funny, thoughtful and opinionated. She has a global perspective on the challenges facing farmers in her new locale. We talked at length about the reasons why natural wine has resonance in this area. “By the 80’s fermentation in Puglia had changed. People had very little involvement (in the process.) They made wine… and waited for the E.U. to distill it.”

“Technology took hold, via big wineries. Yeasts, autofermenters, temperature control: they got control of fermentation, but in a sterile way.”

But awareness of a different path was only dormant. “Before the 80’s, everyone made wine at home. There was great knowledge, and courage. The wines were volatile, often bad.”

Hence, the seeds of the local natural wine movement. “We can start a new era, with a traditional point of view. Small winemakers today can depart from the point of view of the home winemaker, it’s what people in their families used to do anyway.” Lisa believes this is the reason Italy is such a source of adopters of natural winemaking. “People here used to make tons of Pet Nat wines, even. That would often explode….” Petillant Naturel wines are fashionable in natural wine circles. They are sparkling wine bottled before the secondary fermentation is finished, without the addition of yeasts or sugars. With the assistance of talented oenologists like Lisa, stable and tasty wines made on a human scale can become a part of the area’s future.

I left. The sun was already low in the sky. My drive north became dreamy radiant orange port towns, and painful westward squinting. Today, as I multitask hopscotch, and chalk drawings of bugs and flowers with my sunny three-year-old, I strain to remember the feel of that remote place. Windy. Arid. A little forlorn. Wild.


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