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Wine Lover’s Guide To Lesser Known Italian Wine Regions – Salice Salentino

January 31, 2019 2 comments

Today, wine lovers, we are going on yet another wine journey in Italy. We are going all the way down almost to the bottom of the heel of the “Italian Boot”, to the area called Salice Salentino.

While we are on our way, I have a question for you – what do you know about first ever Rosé wine – ahh, we are in Italy, so let’s switch to the proper names – so again, what do you know about first ever Rosato wine bottled in Italy and exported to the USA? Do you know where, when, what was the name of it? I’ll let you ponder at it for a bit – the answer will come a bit later. And for now, let’s talk about Salice Salentino.

Salice Salentino is a small town located down south on the “heel” of Italy. If you will find it on the map, you will see that it is situated on a strip of the land, Salento, sandwiched between Adriatic and Ionian Seas (Gulf of Taranto, to be geographically precise). The town supposedly takes its name from the willow trees, which were growing in abundance in the area in the old days – you can see the willow tree showing up in the middle of a shield on Salice Salentino’s coat of arms. I don’t know if the land looked anything the picture below, but it is easy to imagine that this looks very authentic.

willow tree photo by arvid høidahl on unsplash small

The town of Salice Salentino was founded in the 14th century, but wine… The wine was made on that land way, way before – let’s say, about 2000 years before, as the first mentions and artifacts of winemaking in the area go all the way back to at least the 6th century BC. And why not – you got rich soils with a lot of maritime influence, and despite the close proximity of the seas, hot and dry summers, which sport on average 300 sunny days. It is easy for grapes to ripen happily and abundantly in such conditions – may be, too easy – it is difficult to tame that amount of sugar later on at the winery. It is not very surprising that for the longest time, Salice Salentino was known as the source of grapes and bulk wine, and quantity was definitely trumpeting quality.

Come the 20th century, and the situation started to change, with more attention placed on the quality of the wine, controlling the yield and focusing on the quality of the grapes. Historically, Salice Salentino, and the whole big region it is a part of – Puglia – was focused on the red grapes and red wines; ohh – let’s not forget about olive trees (Puglia produces about 50% of all olive oil in Italy – but this is not the subject of today’s conversation). When Salice Salentino DOC was created in 1976, red wines were the only ones allowed under the DOC. Rules were subsequently changed in 1990 and 2010, and now both white and Rosato are produced in Salice Salentino.

To make wine, we need grapes, right? So let’s talk about grapes. Every region in Italy has its own, unique grapes – such grapes are called autochthonous (having a local origin). Salice Salentino is no exception – Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera (Black Malvasia, a red grape which is a sibling of the well known aromatic white grape, Malvasia), and Primitivo are three of the autochthonous grapes in that area.

Negroamaro is definitely the kind of Salice Salentino winemaking. The grape’s name can be translated as “black bitter”, due to its shiny black skin and bitter aromatics. It is widely considered that Negroamaro originated in Salentino area. The grape has no problems with dry hot climate and lack of water and can consistently achieve appropriate levels of ripeness. Most of the Salice Salentino DOC red wines contain 80% to 90% of Negroamaro grape.

Malvasia Nera is a dark-skinned member of Malvasia family. Malvasia Nera is growing around Italy, not only in Salice Salentino, and it is typically used as a blending grape, adding unique aromatics to the resulting wine.

You might not be familiar with Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, but I’m sure you heard of Primitivo, which after the long research and often heated debates was recognized as an identical grape to American beloved Zinfandel. Primitivo is a star of the surrounding Puglia, especially in Primitivo de Manduria, however, in Salice Salentino it only plays supporting role in some of the blends, particularly with Aleatico.

In addition to the three grapes we already mentioned, Aleatico (red), Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, and Fiano can be used. Overall, DOC rules allow the production of the full range of wines – sparkling (spumante) white, Rosato, red, and dessert (Dolce and Liquorosso).

Now, it is time to taste some wines. I had an opportunity to taste three of the Salice Salentino wines, but before I will share my tasting notes, let me introduce you to the three wineries.

Leone de Castris

This is definitely one of the pioneering wine producers in Salice Salentino. The company started in 1665 in Salice Salentino, by planting vines and olive trees. In the 19th century, the Leone de Castris was exporting bulk wine to the United States. The first bottling under Leone de Castris name was produced in 1925.

Now, remember the question I asked you at the beginning of this post? You probably figured that already (o mighty google), but nevertheless: the very first Rosato produced and sold in Italy, and imported to the United States was made at Leone de Castris winery in 1943, under the name of Five Roses. The name signifies the fact that multiple generations of de Castris had 5 children each.

Gradually, Leone de Castris reduced their land ownership from 5,000 acres to under 900 acres, which is split between the vineyards and olive trees. The winery makes today around 2.5 million bottles per year, which includes red, white, Rosato, and sparkling wines.

Cantina San Donaci

Cantina San Donaci is also one of the oldest wineries in Salice Salentino. It was established in 1933 by 12 local farmers. Today, about 600 partners are involved in all aspects of winemaking – tending to about 1,250 acres of vineyards, harvesting the grapes and making the wines.

Production includes white, Rosato and red wines.

Candido Wines

Candido Wines started in 1929, producing bulk wine obtained from the 1,000 acres of vineyards. In 1957, the bottling started under its own label. Today, the winery owns 350 acres of organically farmed vineyards, focusing on the autochthonous varieties, as well as some of the international ones and producing the typical Salice Salentino range of wines.

Here are the notes for the 3 wines I tasted.

2015 Leone de Castris 50° Vendemmia Salice Salentino Riserva DOC (13.5% ABV, $12, 90% Negroamaro, 10% Malvasia Nera, 12+ months in barrel, 6+ months in bottle)
Dark ruby
Herbs- driven nose – sage, oregano, excellent minerality, underbrush, a touch of cherries
Ripe cherries on the palate, sweet tobacco, well-integrated tannins, a touch of sandalwood. Good balance.
8, the wine is super food-friendly, and it is a lot of wine for the money.

2017 Cantina San Donaci Anticaia Rosato Salice Salentino DOP (13.5% ABV, $8, 90% Negroamaro, 10% Malvasia Nera, 18-20 hours skin contact)
Beautiful Intense Rose color
A touch of strawberries, restrained,
Beautiful strawberries and cranberries, good acidity, fuller body than a typical rose, but nicely balanced, good tartness.
8-, very good

2015 Candido La Carta Salice Salentino Riserva DOC (13.5% ABV, $12, 95% Negroamaro, 5% Malvasia Nera, aged in large casks)
Garnet color
Tobacco, sweet oak, leather, medium plus intensity
Cherries, smoke, round, pleasant well-integrated tannins, delicious.
8+, superb. Absolutely delicious. Outstanding value and QPR.

As you can see, these Salice Salentino wines are offering an outstanding value – at $12, finding the wine which gives you so much pleasure is rather difficult – and these wines delivered. They are perfect on its own and would work very well with food – antipasti, traditional local hard sheep cheeses, such as Pecorino Sardo or Pecorino Romano, hearty stews, you name it.

I hope I helped you to discover a new Italian wine region. If you are looking for every day, great value, delicious glass of wine – Salice Salentino wines are worth seeking and experiencing. Cheers!

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