header i-Italy

Articles by: Mattie john Bamman

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    What Determines High-Quality Olive Oil?


    I began by visiting the highly prized olive oil maker, Raffaele Cazzetta, of Cazzetta Olive Oil. Then, I attended a “laboratory” at the Slow Food festival, Il Mercatino del Gusto, where a panel of Slow Food specialists took me through a step-by-step tasting.


    The drive to L'Azienda Agricola Cazzetta winds through a countryside literally filled with ancient olive trees; many are over 500 years old, and some are over 1,000 years old. You can tell which are the oldest because they have split down the middle to create two, complimentary trees. The types of olives that grow in Puglia are numerous, but Cazzetta only uses two: Ogliarola Salentina and Cellina di Nardò. The company pays particular care to its trees, and in fact, its 5,000 olive trees are given both first and last names. This allows the company to trace which olives from which trees produce which olive oils.


    Raffaele Cazzetta warmly welcomed me into his azienda then took me into the factory. Because it was not harvest time, the large machines lay dormant. However, as Cazzetta explained, during harvest the company works absolutely furiously. Every olive that is picked is processed in the same day, and this often requires working all night. The flavor of the olive oil is considered to drastically change if the olives used to make it are not processed within two hours of being picked. Further, if the olive spends time on the ground, it becomes acidic, and in some olive groves, large nets are spread out to catch the olives.


    As we walked through his factory, Cazzetta explain to me the process of making oil. When the olives arrive, they are poured onto a conveyer belt and then washed. Next, a machine gently breaks their skins to draw out the oil from the pulp, and afterward the skins and pulp are separated from the oil in a large rotating cylinder. The result is a mixture of water and oil, which is drawn into a machine that separates the majority of the water from the oil. Finally, the oil is put into large steel tanks, which look similar to those used in winemaking, where it is allowed to concentrate for up to a month. During this time, Cazzetta’s olive oils are constantly integrated with one another until the perfect combination is reached. Then the extra virgin olive oil is bottled.


    After visiting the Cazzetta Azienda, I partook in an olive oil laboratory offered at the four-day Slow Food festival, Il Mercatino del Gusto. The laboratory took place in the beautiful courtyard of the Palazzo Capece in the city of Maglie and was guided by a panel of 4 Slow Food specialists. Five olive oils were presented and paired with traditional breads, pâté, delicious fresh red onion, and cherry tomatoes. I soon discovered that olive oil tasting is serious business, however I had almost no idea what was expected of me.


    First of all, with five cups of olive oil sitting before me, I had to ask: Am I really supposed to drink olive oil? When I looked around, I saw that I was. At the first sip I wanted to cough but the courtyard was too quiet; tears rolled down my face. An important thing to know when tasting olive oil is that if you drink too much a tremendous dry spice attacks the back of your throat. The correct way to taste is to take a very, very small sip and swish it so that it coats the inside your mouth.


    The panel of Slow Food specialists explained that olive oil should be paired with foods in a similar fashion as wine: A complex dish demands a complex olive oil, and a light dish demands a light olive oil. The panel spoke with longing of having olive oil menus offered alongside wine menus in restaurants. I must admit that I had a very hard time distinguishing different tastes from the five olive oils, and it reminded me of the difficulties I had when I first tried to distinguish particular flavors in wine. I could tell however, that I liked numbers three and four best. They were very fruity, and, well, tasted like fresh olives.


    The most important thing that I learned was that good olive oil, such as Cazzetta’s, should always be eaten raw and only used to finish a dish. While my experiences did not make me an olive oil connoisseur, they did show me that high-quality olive oil is the result of having respect for hard work and great olives. The best producers hire a large number of harvesters each season to ensure that the olives are brought into the factory at their peak. Just like wine, the best product is the result of having the best fruit.


  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Pirro Varone: Organic Wine In Southern Italy


    Pure and simple, Pirro Varone Winery has a hands-off philosophy of winemaking; it’s not what the winery does, but what it doesn’t do, that takes so much effort. Each and every wine that Pirro Varone produces is guaranteed to be 1) a mono-variety, 2) made from grapes sourced from a single vineyard, and 3) aged in stainless steel; the winery does not possess a single wood barrel. “We tried it once, but, after four days, we couldn’t take it anymore,” says Piero Ribezzo, owner of the winery, whose family history in the area dates back to at least 1587.


    Piero and I meet at 6pm in Manduria to visit the family villa, which was home to Pirro Varone during the 15th Century. The doorway of the historic villa is the winery’s logo, featured on every label. Inside, icons of the Virgin Mary and other religious figures are built into the walls, and the rooms smell of antique furniture. When Piero retires, he will move his family from Torino (Turin), in the north of Italy, into the villa. For now, he splits his time between Torino and Manduria, spending at least one week each month among his grapes. World-renowned winemaker Cosimo Spina heads the winemaking operations at Pirro Varone.


    When we reach the Pirro Varone vineyards, the sun begins to set, throwing a spectacular eruption of rosy red across the vines. We pull up to a tiny cottage in the middle of the grapes, and Piero opens a bottle of his 2008 “Scirocco” rosato (100% Negroamaro). The rosé is clean and dry with wonderful structure. Negroamaro, Puglia’s most important native grape, has so much intrinsic character that it requires only a short maceration of 2–8 hours to extract its flavors. We carry our glasses to the roof of the cottage, where Piero points out the various vineyards: Negroamaro, Primitivo, Fiano.

    Rose bushes are planted at the ends of the rows—but their purpose is more than aesthetic. “The roses warn us of maledictions such as oidio and malbianco, and other types of mildew,” explains Piero. “The mildews affect the roses first, and when we see these effects, we have time to protect the vineyard.” Fungus is a major danger in Puglia’s hot, sun-soaked environment, and if it were not for the crosswinds flowing from the Ionian and Adriatic Seas, the grapes would simply rot on the vines. This technique of organic farming seems more like simple common sense than ingenuity when Piero explains it, but such techniques are what made the winery a certified organic wine producer distributed by Delinat. Delinat is a German distributor of organic products throughout Europe. The Swiss organization Bio-Inspecta certifies all of Delinat’s products. At the time of writing, Pirro Varone wines are not available in the United States.


    When our glasses of rosato are finished, Piero descends for another bottle. He returns with a rose that he’s clipped for my girlfriend and a bottle of his Primitivo di Manduria. The Primitivo di Manduria DOC is one of the most famous in Puglia. The Primitivo grape was determined identical to Zinfandel by scientists at the University of California in Davis in 1973, but it wasn’t until the 1990s, when advertising firms recognized the potential for marketing Primitivo wines in relation to Zinfandel, that Primitivo made a splash in the United States. The history of Manduria’s fame within Italy goes back much farther, although not without controversy.


    “The Manduria name was born from vino sfuso [bulk wine],” explains Piero. “The vino sfuso came from zones all over Salento, but because the railroad came to Manduria to pick up the tanks of sfuso, all of the cisterns were labeled ‘di Manduria.’” This resulted in many people believing that all the wines were from Manduria. Says Piero, “It was wrong to say ‘Manduria, Manduria’ when the wines came from all these different wine-growing zones.”




    The Manduria region is, of course, deserving of its fame, because of both its unique native grape varieties and its ideal growing conditions. The vineyards of Pirro Varone are located near the top of a dramatic slope that ends in the Ionian Sea. The growing region is known as the Surani—one of the best in Manduria. The clay topsoil is red from a balance of potassium and iron, and underneath, it is rocky and composed mostly of limestone, which results in excellent drainage. The Pirro Varone Primitivo di Manduria shows the effects of Puglia’s environment. It is soft and round, with deep, dark fruit and a juicy friendliness that makes it very approachable. The spice is polite rather than forceful, though the finish lasts and lasts. The tannins are mild, and its succulence makes it a great accompaniment to barbequed meats or lasagna.


    In total, the winery grows 7 varieties of grapes: the native grapes Primitivo, Negroamaro, Malvasia Bianca, Fiano Minutolo, and Grecale, and the international grapes Syrah and Grisola. Grisola is similar to Barbera, the grape commonly found in Piedmont, “but not the same,” says Piero emphatically. Grisola is a rarity in the south of Italy, and it comprises Pirro Varone’s “Le Vigne Rare” Rosso Salento.


    The winery’s “Le Vigne Rare” Bianco uses the little known but highly expressive grape Fiano di Pugliese Minutolo, which is similar in some regards to Trauminer, only with more body. The grape is highly prized on the Salento peninsula because it pairs well with seafood, particularly gambieri crudi, or raw prawns, a specialty of nearby Gallipoli. The use of the name “Fiano” is causing some alarm among winemakers in the Campania region, which has a DOCG classification that features the Fiano grape. Winemakers in Campania say that Fiano is native only to Campania, and that the Pugliese variety is not truly Fiano. Winemakers in Puglia counter that their Fiano is native to Puglia and has just as much right to the name. Whether or not one is the true Fiano, the grapes create distinctly different wines. Campania’s Fiano, which is used in the delicate Fiano di Avellino DOCG, is much lighter in color and character, and is more floral. Fiano Minutolo has greater structure and more body.


    After the sunset, we descend from the rooftop in the half dark and accompany Piero to his beach house, a few kilometers down the road. On the beach looking over the Ionian Sea, Piero Ribezzo serves espresso instead of wine. He introduces his wife and his daughter and, at one point in the evening, playfully chides his daughter when her cell phone interrupts the quiet mood. “I don’t like it at all,” says Piero. “Cell phones are being made so that they can do anything—email, texting… who knows—maybe they’ll make movies.”


    “Or wine,” I say.


    Piero smiles. “Now that would be a sad day, wouldn’t it?”

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Southern Italian Cult Wine: Q&A with Sergio Botrugno


    For Sergio Botrugno, being a low-production winemaker in the south of Italy means having complete control. Every grape is grown under his supervision, his relationships with foreign distributors are created over years of conversations and dinners, and his wine’s limited availability actually helps it in the global market: It’s gained a cultish following in Germany and the Netherlands. The winery has a total of 44 hectares (109 acres) of vineyards, ten of which were purchased in the last year. Recently, Botrugno began distributing his Ottavianello in New York (see review below), a wine that greatly expresses the terroir of Puglia and embodies the uniqueness of Botrugno Winery.


    The architecture of the winery is based on the concept of transparency, quite literally, and a significant portion is open to the elements. Located just a hundred feet from Brindisi Bay, the winery is constantly ventilated with the fresh salt air of the sea. Every wine Botrugno makes is made from grapes native to Puglia, and the vines grow along the sand shores of the Adriatic, sometimes right on the beach. The vines are called alberello: shrub-like vines that grow without trellises. This growing style has been used in Puglia for centuries. Recently, Zinfandel growers in Sonoma Valley have begun utilizing alberello, perhaps in part because Primitivo, one of Puglia’s most important native grapes, is identical to Zinfandel.


    The Greek root of Botrugno, botrus, means bunch of grapes. Sergio Botrugno, a third generation winemaker, grew up surrounded by wine. His family’s livelihood was threatened, however, during WWII, when his father, Romolo Botrugno, was imprisoned by U.S. forces. When he was freed, Romolo Botrugno returned home to find his vineyards gone; but rather than lose heart, he immediately purchased new land, saving the family trade that Sergio Botrugno carries on today.


    During my tour, Sergio Botrugno took me to the roof of the winery, from which the Adriatic Sea was visible—a natural location to discuss his approach to bringing out terroir in his wines.

    Mattie Bamman: What are your major concerns in the vineyards right now?
    Sergio Botrugno: It is very important to have control. We begin harvesting soon—first the Ottavianello, then Primitivo, then Negroamaro—and we don’t want all of our grapes to mature at the same time because we won’t have time to work them all. We want to track each individual vineyard’s grapes—their juice and must—in order to preserve what is in the ground. This way we know what particular type of labor we must do.

    MB: What is characteristic of the terroir of your vineyards?
    SB: It is the basis of our logo. The triangle represents the three elements of our terroir: grape, ground, and vineyards. I use Malvasia Nera, Negroamaro, and Ottavianello because they are our grapes. Not Cabernet, Chardonnay, and so on, because, while these grapes make wonderful wines, you find them on every side of the world.


    My Negroamaro are different than the Negroamaro of different regional wineries in Puglia. For example, my Negroamaro in Brindisi have a high acidity. And I know many people say that you cannot have this in the south of Italy, but the grapes start at 9 or 10 upgrade of acidity. It is very high. It is like Piedmont. If you go 20 kilometers to Cellino, you will find grapes that have 6 to 7 upgrade of acidity, and so these winemakers have a different kind of work because it is a different kind of terroir.


    Another characteristic is that we have alberello Brindisino and alberello Pugliese, which are low shrubs and typical of our territory, and produce low yields of very good quality. The low shrubs produce 1-3 kilo from each plant. This promotes a good maturation of phenolic acids in the grape skins.

    MB: What do you think is the future of the Negroamaro grape?
    SB: I think that it offers the best opportunity for people to identify with the terroir of Puglia. Which is the most important thing.

    MB: What is particularly important for wine production in Brindisi?
    SB: That we work all along at very low temperatures. It allows us to preserve aromas and to extract all of the good substance from the skin. The maturation of the skin is very particular: To make a good wine, you don’t need the juice, you need the substance of the skin.

    MB: What is one example of your gentle approach to winemaking?
    SG: It is possible for me to have a very high concentration with very good color, and this in turn allows me to use a long pre-fermentation, which gives the wine less color at the end but produces a great aroma. It is very important that what you find in the smell, you also find in the taste.


    Another kind of work we do, which we are proud of, is a very natural form of carbonic maceration. We do it with our novello wines (young wines) made from Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera, and Ottavianello. While most people prefer to pump in carbonic dioxide, we use boxes filled with new must. The carbonic dioxide released from the new must completes the process. It takes longer, and my brother Antonio likes to say it is too much work, and it’s true, it takes a long time, but it’s worth it. If you have good maturation with carbonic maceration, you extract the good aromas. The Germans buy the novello Ottavianello in January, which I think is too early—but they like it so much, they can’t wait.

    MB: What kind of barrels do you use to age your wines?
    SB: Where we store our wines is not a barrique-eria (barriques are French, oak barrels), but a cella vinaria, because long ago our ancestors did this kind of work. There is evidence that in the second century before Christ we had similar conditions. They did not have barrique, but bigger barrels, botti grandi. Now we work with new barrique, French and America, and we try to test and experiment because we are young in this work. It is beautiful for us when people ask: You have Negroamaro, a very particular grape; why do you use barrique? I use barrique because it is our tradition. We try to show that our Negroamaro can work in new conditions and have a longer maturation. The tastes may vary slightly, but it is Negroamaro, and that is what matters most. The only problem we have with our cella vinaria is that on hot days, when we come down we never want to go back up.

    MB: You recently acquired 10 more hectares of land. Do you plan to expand your distribution?
    SB: We have good situations in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland right now. We are proud to say that during the last year, we began selling our wine in New York and Japan. This came about after multiple meetings over years, where we met with distributors and they tasted and examined our wines. It is important for us not to sell wine so much as to find a good partner.


    MB: What are some of the traditions that you want to maintain?

    SB: The first thing to understand is that our winery is in central Brindisi. In other situations, people say there are one or two days a year when their winery is open. Our slogan is “winery open year round.” We want to show, every day, what we do, how we do it, and why. And if we do something that you do not understand, you can ask and we can explain. It is direct contact and satisfaction.


    I know that it is possible to try harder, change, and experiment. I have my way, I know my way, but every year, I change my way. That is what real tradition is to me. I do not want a philosophy that will create an untraditional wine, and, simultaneously, I do not want to lose creativity. A Botrugno wine will always taste like a Botrugno wine: round and soft. I want to make drinking wines.



    Wine Review

    Botrugno Winery 2007  Ottavianello (100% Ottavianello)


    Maintaining the cult characteristics of high quality and rarity, the wine fortunately skips over exorbitant price, costing 15.99. The Ottavianello grape, better known as the French Cinsault, officially became a part of Italy’s DOC wines in 1972. It has a long history in Puglia, but Botrugno is one of only a handful of wineries to use it. The 2007 Ottavianello is IGT rather than DOC because the Botrugno vineyard is south of the official DOC zone. The 2007 is medium bodied, dark and elegant: a very good year. Aromas of violets and chocolate open the wine. The wine is hot on the nose, but not in the mouth. Soft as lace with succulent juiciness and well balanced. Round and soft tannins make it superb for meat or salmon from the grill.

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Q&A with Winemaker Massimiliano Apollonio


    Massimiliano Apollonio, thirty-nine, is leading Italy’s new tradition of winemaking with innovative wines of consistently high quality. Apollonio Winery’s long list of wines—over twenty-four—reflects the unique environment of the Puglia region in Southern Italy and its outstanding native grapes. Underground rivers and island-like crosswinds from the Adriatic and Ionian Seas give Puglia wines a distinctive terroir. The reds are soft yet leathery, friendly yet austere, more New World than Old World. At this year’s Vinitaly wine convention, Apollonio’s 2001 “Divoto” (70% Negroamaro, 30% Montepulciano) was awarded the Grand Gold Medal in the category of “Still Wines with Denomination of Origin” of six years or older. The category is one of the most sought after at the event; that a Puglia wine won the award signals the region’s emergence on the global scene.


    Massimiliano is busy and loves it. He works closely with his brother, Marcello Apollonio, who focuses on marketing, to make Puglia’s Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes household names. When I visit him at the winery, he is dealing with 30,000 wine labels  written in Chinese. In order to be successful in the Chinese market, the labels need to specify that Apollonio’s wine is not made from rice.


    We go for a stroll through a nearby vineyard planted with Negroamaro, Puglia’s most important native grape, and Massimiliano quickly leaves the office behind. A dilapidated farmhouse from the 1700s stands among almond trees, peach trees, and cacti. He takes me on a tour inside and points out where the animals were once housed and fed. In this land of plenty, Massimiliano Apollonio is at home, and free to do his experiments on grapes.

    Mattie Bamman: What makes Puglia’s environment one of the best growing areas in Italy?
    Massimiliano Apollonio: I think Puglia is very good for the red grapes. For white it is a little more complicated; our specialty is very big red wines. Before, people thought that to create great red wine you needed hills and south-facing slopes, but thanks to Californian and Australian companies, people see that what you need is sun. Puglia is particularly good at creating wine of high quality for low prices.

    MB: Is that because of high yields?
    MA: Yes. You must consider that Puglia is the primary or second-largest producer of grapes in Italy. The problem is that we are not good in Puglia at selling our wine. We are good at producing wine, but not selling it. Now this is changing.

    MB: Which grapes are best suited for Puglia?
    MA: We are lucky because we have many indigenous varieties. We have Negroamaro and Primitivo especially, but we also have black Malvasia from Lecce and Brindisi, and Aleatico. I think that people that use international varieties in Puglia are crazy. But it is still easier at this moment to sell Cabernet Sauvignon than Negroamaro. We are lucky because, whenever you taste a wine from Puglia, you always understand that it’s from Puglia.

    MB: You make many varietals and blends. You experiment…
    MA: Yes. Perhaps I like to experiment too much. At this moment Salento rosè is very famous; Salento is probably the king of rosè. My father always used the best grapes for rosè. We are producing a little experiment called Fanali—but actually it is very traditional. We are bringing back a tradition that is no longer prevalent. We are producing a rosè like my grandfather used to produce. We allow the skins of the grape to remain in contact with the juice until we bottle it. For example, the rosè we bottled in 2007 stayed one year in barrique with the skins. It produces a more structured rosè.

    MB: You seem like a man with a vision. Is there one wine that you want to create that you have yet to create?
    MA: Ah, yes. I would like to produce one white in particular: a Bianco di Alessano. Alessano is a city close to Lecce but the grape is no longer cultivated prevalently. I would like to produce an important white like the red, like Primitivo and Negroamaro, and I think it will be the Alessano. The primary difficulty is finding the original grape, because the Bianco di Alessano you taste in the market now is not the original. The original was grown alberello [a style of growing vines un-trellised, very common in Puglia, so that the vines resemble small trees and produce low grape yields of high quality], and you can no longer find that. However, I must find it.

    MB: What do you think is the future of Puglia wine?
    MA: If this interview were last year, I’d say it would be wonderful, but right now there is the economic crisis. However, I think this crisis is worse for other regions because Puglia is famous for quality wines for low prices, and I think that this is the type of wine people want. They want moderately priced wines, and we are not the cheapest or the most expensive. Also, we never sell our wine for 100 euro and then change our price to 38 euro, as other regions do. Doing this confuses the customer, who of course asks, "Why did I pay 100 euro before and now only 38?" We have always sold for a fair price and people respect the region for that.

    MB: I’ve certainly appreciated it. And now one of the top awards at Vinitaly…
    MA: I was very happy because it was in a category that the more famous wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone, and Barolo usually win. And so, winning this prize in that category means a lot. It was the best gold medal of all gold medals, so it feels pretty good. There is new potential here.