Wine of the week: Wines of Cantine San Marzano

Italy has 20 different distinct administrative wine regions. Some, such as Tuscany and Piedmont, are very well-known. Others, such as Umbria and Veneto, are rapidly gaining popularity in the U.S.

However, there is one very productive area that is definitely worth knowing: Puglia.

Located in the “heel of the boot” in southern Italy, the long and narrow region of Puglia is bordered by 500 miles of coastline, with the Adriatic Sea to the east, the Ionian Sea to the southeast, and the Strait of Otranto and Gulf of Taranto to the south. The terrain varies from mountain peaks to sandy beaches, with flat plains undulating in between.

One of the major appellations within Puglia is Primitivo di Manduria DOC, home to the full-bodied red wine made from the famous Primitivo grape. It is also home to Cantine San Marzano, a collective of winemakers who came together with a single vision to put this appellation on the map.

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It all started in 1962 with 19 winemakers in and around the small town of San Marzano. While they all had the same goal, getting 19 different personalities to agree on anything was not an easy task, since each winemaker had their own way of doing things. But with the leadership of Francesco Cavallo, and a lot of determination, the collective finally coalesced and produced the first bottles branded as Cantine San Marzano in 1996.

Today, the cooperative has grown to over 1,000 vineyard owners who specialize in the local Primitivo grape as well as a selection of other varietals, including Negroamaro and several international varieties. Each grower has a stake in the cooperative, which hires vineyard managers to assist with farming techniques, as well as a consulting winemaker to produce the best wine from each vintage.

One of these vineyard owners is Mauro di Maggio, a dynamic and engaging figure who now serves as managing director of Cantine San Marzano. He also has the honor of being the current — and youngest — president of the Consortium of the Primitivo di Manduria appellation.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mauro recently and tasting through several of the wines from San Marzano. Here are a few of my favorites.

The designation, Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP) or Protected Geographic Indication, gives producers some leeway on how they make their wines and what grapes they use. The 2018 San Marzano Il Pumo Sauvignon Malvasia Salento IGP is the beneficiary of these relaxed standards. Made from a combination of sauvignon blanc and Malvasia, the wine is super floral on the nose with bright flavors of tropical fruit, including guava, pineapple and passion fruit. Hints of ripe nectarine are buoyed by crisp acidity on the fresh finish. I would drink this on its own or with pasta with clam sauce. $14

Negroamaro is a red wine grape variety native to southern Italy that produces a deep, dark wine. The 2017 San Marzano Talò Negroamaro Salento IGP is an excellent example of this variety, with its inky black color and aromas of blackberries and black licorice. The palate is bathed in flavors of blackberry jam, blueberry cobbler and blackcurrant. The balance is spot on, with medium acidity and chewy tannins that contribute to a firm and lengthy finish. Try it with pork roasted with dried fruit. $15

The designation known in Italy as Denominazione d’Origine Protetta or DOP, is also known as Denominazione d’Origine Controllata or DOC in the European Union. The designation comes with very specific requirements with respect to winemaking techniques and the use of approved varieties. The 2017 San Marzano Talò Primitivo Manduria DOP is made with a grape that many consider to be the Italian cousin of zinfandel and the most important grape of this appellation: Primitivo. This bottling features a bouquet of toasty oak, black cherry and spice on the nose and flavors of succulent red and black fruit on an extremely well-balanced, fat frame. The extra-long finish, with sweet tannins and notes of spicy clove, would be a wonderful accompaniment to grilled lamb. $15

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