Catching up with Morella
Manduria is experiencing some positive changes. There are two restaurants worth eating at. When Lisa and Gaetano arrived there were none.
As we taste available wines in her rented garage-like winery, Lisa comments that it is probably not tourism driving change in Manduria. Primitivo tourism maybe. People are moving here. She worries that the appeal of unfettered country life in the relative cool of olive groves and bush vines outside Manduria will be diminished if new building encroaches on the open agricultural space. They are close to the Ionian sea. Today the coastal towns near Manduria walk a line between shabby and charming. Part of their appeal is the lack of appeal for global bourgeoisie seeking luxe travel. Pizza and gelato. Bad wine under an umbrella by the pier. Kids run around. There are nice things (mulberry trees, bits of ancient architecture, the cold waves) but nobody is abandoning Tolum or Taormina for Campomarino.
As the name suggests, the Masseria del Sale is a former farmhouse in the countryside. We eat in the low vaulted stone dining room that was once a stables. Behind the restaurant is a garden full of palm trees and frogs. Attractive waiters in suits bring us first Champagne and then a series of antipasta including cured pork from Basilicata (Puglia doesn’t have a rich tradition of curing pork: it’s probably too hot) and then a lightly chilled bottle of 2013 Morella Primitivo Malbek and a massive sizzling T-bone, served extra rare. The meat is from Podoloica cattle, a Puglian specialty. The animals graze on scrubby terrain, giving their meat more flavor and a better texture. This steak was aged 45 days before being presented to us like a triumphal feast! Podolica cattle refuse to be milked. Dairy farmers in the area have to dress up in calf skin garb to extract scant smoky milk that is used to make rich ricotta.
The wine is at its best, a balanced vintage served in its prime in appropriate stemware with the perfect meal. I am among a band of wine people who shy away from warm-climate Malbecs as a rule. This lunch showed that keeping an open mind requires understanding that the wine you drink with simple snacks or while being convivial is not the wine for fantastic steak in formal surroundings. Isn’t it good that we can have both? It’s exhausting to drink high alcohol reds regularly, equally so to drink spritzy funky low alcohol glou glou bottles that smell of used tea bags. Diversity: it’s cool!
There are several new projects in the cellar at Morella that are very much in line with au currant wine thinking. A rose from Negroamaro was made in small quantities last year. Lisa said she made it mostly for locals around Manduria who need something refreshing to drink. It is likely that sufficient bottles of 2019 will be made to reach our shores. Un mese e mezzo is Lisa’s orange wine experiment. The wine is clean and more golden than orange/brown. She uses 60 mg/liter of sulfur, and is skeptical of natural wine dogmas that shun the stuff entirely.
“It’s funny how none of the tasters at natural wine events want to talk about our work in the vineyards.” Morella uses biodynamics to farm their old bush vines. We talked about how it is eerily reminiscent of the 90’s new expensive barrique fetish period, where cooperage got more column inches than farming methods.
“You eat our grapes and you can taste the wine.” Here’s to healthy farming, judicious cellar interventions, and critical thinking.
To that end, a taste of the 2015 Mondonuovo reminded me of the primacy of terroir in our work. The wine is from a parcel of very old vines Lisa purchased a few years ago, land distinctly more calcareous than the red soil sites surrounding her home. The crumbled white limestone makes wine with a measurably lower pH. Tart cherry and raspberry flavors and a bright texture will change notions about Primitivo. It’s always the soil. That said, measured pH in American red zinfandel from say the Russian River can also be quite low, even when the wines are 14% alcohol or higher.