Mariangela Plantamura’s grandfather first planted vineyards in Gioia del Colle in 1946. The old clone of Primitivo that he planted had been developed by a local monk in Gioia del Colle at the end of the 17th century. It is particularly well-adapted to their windy, high-elevation location. Mariangela’s father used to collect herba selvatica from the vineyards to eat. Between rows Mariangela points out cima di ciuccia de campo, a local white-flowered plant with edible leaves that she says is great with pasta, peppers and olive oil. As part of a family who always ate foraged and cultivated food from their fields, farming organically was a natural choice for Plantamura.“I learned organic methods from my grandfather. It is the way we have always worked.”
Today Mariangela’s family hand harvest their 3.5 hectares of espalier-trained old vines into small baskets from this original parcel. Plantamura is dedicated to low yields. Last year they harvested 25 hectoliters per hectare in an area where 80 hectoliters is permitted. The pruning is rigorous, and ensures mature fruit. They do not irrigate, the vineyards are above a natural aquifer and their vine’s roots bore deep into the mineral-rich earth to reach water.
“We dream of a cellar in the vineyard.” Mariangela Plantamura and her husband make wine in a simple cellar behind their home, in a typical residential neighborhood. It’s a nice normal place, with a small garden and short driveway. Mariangela drove me to where she wants the new cellar to be, a piece of land that her grandfather first planted in 1946. He would harvest Primitivo in a backpack, 100 kilograms at a time. He planted a special old clone of Primitivo that had been developed by a local monk in Gioia del Colle at the end of the 17th century. The clone is well-adapted to their windy location. “I learned organic methods from my grandfather.” Today they hand harvest their 3.5 hectares of espalier-trained old vines into small baskets.
Gioia del Colle is my favorite town name in Puglia. There are many wonderfully evocative wines to choose from: Locorotondo is a very close 2nd place. Martina Franca gets the bronze. But the positivity of Gioia del Colle makes it my gold medalist. And it is a hill, somewhat rare among Puglian farms I’ve toured. At 350m above sea level the climate is cooler and the wines markedly fresher and lower in alcohol than you might be imagining. Plantamura has wild day/night temperature swings because of the elevation, really a very good thing if you plan to make interesting wine. It’s also quite windy on the hill, not surprising in Puglia, but a real bonus when farming organically: I happy to see mother nature blow those pests (and potential rot problems) right out into the Adriatic!
Rain fell steadily in big cold drops as we walked around, and heavy clods of clay soil adhered to our shoes. We pick up fossils of tiny geometric creatures from millions of years ago when Puglia was a sea bed. Lately Mariangela has been experimenting with biodynamic methods on the farm. “We have to study. Every plant is different from another, like every person is different.” It was amazing to hear her say that, maybe truest of the few small things I’ve learned about wine. It’s the reason why Piedmont Wine Imports believes in small farm agriculture. You have to know your plants individually, like friends, or at least co-workers, and there really are only 24 hours in the day: how many relationships can you have? “If you stand in the vineyard, with animals, plants, in the terrain, you respect it.” They see foxes, rabbits, snakes, all manner of critters on their property, as wild forested areas line the edge of their fields are a part of their immediate environment.
Pretty quickly of course our conversation turns to food, specifically what is remarkable and local. Her father used to collect herbs (herba selvatica) from the vineyards to eat. Along our path Mariangela points out cima di ciuccia de campo, a local white-flowered plant with edible leaves that she says is great with pasta, peppers and olive oil. And of course we talk at length about the great mozzarella the region is famous for. As a farmer, Mariangela knows who makes the best, and where to get it.
Plantamura are dedicated to low yields. Last year they harvested 25 hectoliters per hectare in an area where 80 hectoliters is permitted. The pruning is severe, rigorous, it ensures mature fruit. They do not irrigate, the vineyards are above a natural aquifer and their vine’s roots bore deep into the mineral-rich earth to reach water. Last year they made fewer than 50,000 bottles of wine. Making wine is a relatively new endeavor for the family, this is their 12th vintage. Until 2001 Mariangela’s father (and grandfather) simply grew and sold grapes. At first they made only 2,000 bottles of wine, so the estate is growing, progressing. Mariangela plans to produce a white wine soon, maybe from Fiano or Greco: right now they just don’t have the space in their tiny cellar/garage. As a rule Plantamura prefer employing older methods in their cellar work, the one exception being the use of temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. To make a wine of freshness in a warm place like Puglia, this only makes sense.
Of course we must say “Our farmers are nice.” We have to see them again, and word gets around. But I tell you, they really are a lovely couple. You want to support these people. They make exactly the wine I want Piedmont Wine Imports to traffic in, delicious, thought-provoking, joy-producing wine for every day. Wine for a better world where normal people get to drink in all the good stuff that nature provides.
October 2016 Visit
We are standing in the driveway behind Plantamura’s cellar. The night air is cool in Gioia del Colle. There is a crescent moon. We are waiting for Mariangela’s father to return. He emerges from his house and presents me with a plastic grocery bag: figs! At dinner I’d said how much I love them. He talked about how they lived on figs when he was a child, during the war. In my car I found the cheese from America that I’d brought as a gift, and presented it to him.
The figs at dinner were dried, chocolate-covered, and stuffed with an almond. To be honest they weren’t the best thing we ate: it was a super meal. An intimidating variety of fresh local cheese was probably the best thing. As courses rolled out it was easier to converse with their modest, earnest child. She spoke fluent English, and we were both surreptitiously texting with people in other countries, desultory bad guests on the far corner of a table for five. Her boyfriend moved to London, she’s joining him at the end of the school year. Long-distance relationships, teenage years… for me it’s agonizing. I was catching up with family back home, and sharing food pics with friends. There was beautiful fresh mozzarella and burrata, fried bread, bread dumplings, a parmesan, orecchiette pasta with funghi. Cannoli. Grandpa was the first director of the Gioia del Colle DOC growers association. He also told a story of his brother getting drunk on Moscato at three years old. A drunk three-year-old: how could you tell the difference?
Before dinner I’d spent the afternoon and evening with Mariangela and Gaetano. By evening, in the hour or so before their daughters came home, we officially ran out of things to talk about in Italian. We sat at the kitchen table in relative silence. I ate a locally-grown mandarin orange, tart and firm. Also some chocolate-dipped cookies. Time passed slowly. They dressed, I felt awkward in my underdressed state: t-shirt and jeans. It wasn’t even suitable for the weather, much less a nice restaurant. My fault. It was my second wine visit of the day, I’d burned a stockpile of charisma at winery number one, and we’d had an extensive tour of their vineyards and cellar. They had to prepare for dinner. Gaetano had been in the fields all day, and Mariangela had worked the de-stemmer and pumped must from their second harvest into a temperature-controlled stainless tank, as a sturdy Albanian farm hand shoveled grapes into the machine. Soon they will reconstruct the cellar, organize and slightly expand it. They still use an old two-person wooden basket press, a great thing for quality work on this scale.
Gaetano emphasized on several occasions that the second harvest from the day of my visit is solely for sfuso, unbottled wine sold in large glass demijohns to locals. They use small baskets for the normal harvest. This little final crop is bundled unceremoniously into a trailer being pulled behind Gaetano’s tractor. It’s fascinating for me to see how this kind of less qualitatively rigorous harvest happens. I see the old bulk methods in action for a first time. It’s still reassuringly human in scale, a small team of locals picking and talking and smoking, hustling around to finish a sweep of the farm in only two days.
The two-hectare field of Primitivo that is being harvested while I visit is near 40 hectares of forest. Snakes and foxes are common in the vines. In Gioia del Colle it is possible to make 80 hectoliters per hectare of wine. By farming organically and focusing on quality, Mariangela and Gaetano produce 30% less in a typical vintage. “Using chemicals and irrigation is like carrying a child to school on your back,” Mariangela says. It inhibits proper development. “In organic agriculture we can solve 1,000 problems using natural defenses. Problems develop when farmers don’t think first about the health of the earth.”
2016 was a good year in Gioia del Colle for the first 10 days of permissible harvest. Then rain came, and made everything complicated. In 2016 they will skip the barrel-aged riserva, and just make the red and black label Primitivo, to ensure quality. It helps in a rainy year to have lots of calcareous material in the soil. Plantamura’s fields have an abundance of tufo, so drainage is excellent. The skies are threatening, but the ground in the vineyard where we stand is dry. Primitivo grapes are sweet at harvest, close to table grapes in character. The berries are medium-sized, and round. I ate more than a few. As Mariangela and Gaetano slowly expand their vineyard acreage, they plant with selections of the best vines from their existing sites. This massale process creates, diverse and qualitatively interesting vine stock in the new fields.
Back in their kitchen, Mariangela and I taste Plantamura’s current releases.
The 2015 Plantamura Etichetta Rossa from Parco Largo is very ripe. Fruity, aromatic, a little tannic. The wine is made from relatively young vines, and has freshness as a primary virtue. Juicy.
The 2015 Plantamura Etichetta Nera Contrada San Pietro is mellow in comparison to the Etichetta Rossa. It spends a little time in large barrel, and has an exceptionally pleasant texture.
Gioia del Colle is worthy of a visit. Well-preserved 12th century architecture, diverse and tasty indigenous foods, high quality local wine. I’m glad to be connected to such a sweet family and their excellent farm.
Wines We Import
Plantamura Etichetta Rossa Primitivo
[Soil Type] Clay limestone soil with Espallier trained low yielding vines.
Elevation] 350m [Bottles Made]
[Method of Fermentation] Hand harvested into small baskets during the first two weeks of September. A traditional wooden press is used for gentle extraction.Fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. Aged in steel tanks for twelve months.
Plantamura Etichetta Nera Primitivo
[Soil Type] Clay limestone soil with Espallier trained low yielding vines.
[Elevation] 350m [Bottles Made]
[Method of Fermentation] Fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and aged 6 months in stainless steel, 6 months in durmast barrels.
Mariangela Plantamura got tre bicchieri from Gambero Rosso for this wine, a major deal in the Italian wine trade. She deserves it: this Primitivo is fresher at 15% alcohol than should be possible. It’s remarkable to me that a winery not much larger than a US garage is operating with this high level of skill and vision. It is the rare red that can handle Korean meat courses, or even saucy short ribs.