I’d read the comment ‘There’s more to Puglia than trulli’ – and of course there is – much, much more. But, it is still an impressive sight to witness a whole landscape constructed of these little grey, stone molehills, which (as would seem apparent) tend to remind people of huge conical bras. An army of giant, circa 1990 Madonna bras, pointing towards the sky, in a sleepy Italian village in the east of Puglia. What’s not impressive about that?
We found ourselves in the heart of Valle d’Itria (the valley of the trulli) during a small detour on the way to the I Pastini winery. My group and I had spent a quick 45 minutes taking in the historical town of Alberobello, where we were introduced to the charming ‘trullo’ houses, which I heard were becoming dilapidated until some bright spark decided to turn them into unique B&Bs for tourists. I imagine these luxury stone-walled tipis make very novel accommodation.
A wine friend of mine had a great visit to I Pastini a year or so ago and highly recommended it to me as somethere that was excellent at what it does. As we drive up to the winery, we see that I Pastini has trulli of its own, overlooking the vineyards, and we learn that they preceded the vines by a few centuries.
The winery was opened by the Carparelli family in 1996 and, as the still-standing trulli suggest, they are very proud of the region’s history. The old and the new seem to rub shoulders at I Pastini like good friends. Age-old winegrowing traditions are employed here, as are solely organic practices, shunning chemicals and pesticides for natural and harmonious methods. The first thing we notice when we see the vines are the gorgeous pink rose bushes at the foot of every row; their purpose is to attract pests away from the vines, keeping the grapes out of harm’s way.
Every harvest, twenty grapepickers are employed; three men and seventeen women. In a male-dominated industry, this is great news to promote some gender balance, but the reason doesn’t really land at feminism. They have found that women generally make more careful pickers – smaller hands provide a more delicate touch, which is important when you can’t use chemicals to preserve and protect the grapes in the process. If skins get broken, fermentation will start early, which is not what you want when you are making organic wine.
As traditional as they try to keep the winemaking, this isn’t to say that they have turned their backs on technology in the modern world of wine – in fact, quite the opposite. As we tour the winery, we see that I Pastini have invested in state of the art equipment to see their wines through from precise temperature-controlled fermentation to fast and efficient bottling and labelling. They also have a beautiful and well-designed tasting room and host really well-structured and informational tours (there are English ones available too) with the vision of educating people from all over the world about the spirit of the Valle d’Itria and its local wine industry. It’s working too – next to the packaging station we see dozens of boxes packed up and ready to go to new customers in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and in countries all over Europe.
Putting aside the slick set up, I Pastini still offers something unique, which keeps customers interested and loyal – and it’s what it’s all about at the end of the day: the grapes. I Pastini proudly pursues the goal of recovering and promoting local grape varieties such as the white Verdeca, Bianco d’Alessano and Minutolo grapes and the black Susumaniello and Primitivo grapes and are dedicated to showing them in their wines at their most typical and authentic expressions.
After our tour, we sit in the tasting room and get to experience the fruits of their land and their efforts in a selection of their most heralded wines. First, I Pastini Spumante Brut. Made from 100% Verdeca, it expresses the typical crisp apple and floral aromatics of the grape and it is exceptionally clean and light on the palate, with fine, lively bubbles. We follow this with the Antico, made from Verdeca, Bianco d’Alessano and a little Minotolo. As the name suggests, this wine is crafted using traditional methods of the winegrowers of the past, such as gobelet training and then blending according to the amounts already established at the time of planting. It’s pale in colour, with a light to medium body but a full, fruity taste on the palate – citrus and green fruits. One of those lovely seafood whites – or simply as an aperitif – and we enjoy it again at our villa later with salads and anchovies.
The next white is the gorgeously aromatic Rampone. This wine seduces us all with its exotic fruit flavours, thanks to the Minuto – a grape that had almost become extinct. Because of the favourable conditions at I Pastini and their recovery programme, the grape is now thriving again and producing exceptional wines like this one.
Their two reds are equally delicious: Arpago, a Primitivo with intense with wild berry fruits and Versosud, a 100% Susumaniello. Susumaniello, a grape I’ve never had the pleasure in tasting before, is considered one of the most important grapes native to the neighbouring province of Brindisi. Thought to be named ‘small donkey’ after the young vines appeared to be overloaded with grapes, Susumaniello has matured into something much more sophisticated! This is a powerful wine, brimming with black cherries and spice, with smooth tannins and a long persistent finish. We are huge fans and make sure we mark a few ticks next to this one on our order sheet.
My wine friend was right – I Pastini really is excellent at what it does. It’s a place of heart, of story, of integrity; a place that has embraced its roots wholeheartedly and has brought them forward to the 21st century. At the end of every harvest, the family celebrate with their workers by baking focaccia in the hole-in-the-wall stone oven in the main trullo – a Pugliese tradition that the family that lived there centuries before would have done. But, now there is one key difference: the focaccia is enjoyed with some truly exceptional wine.