Sunday, June 14, 2015

Master Class in Indigenous Wines ~ As Taught by a Donkey, a Rooster and the Spirit of Place

There are aspects to life that don’t travel so well on the road. One of them is the lack of interaction with creatures other than humans. Maybe it is a pet, or the birds in one’s back yard, any number of life forms that constitute the daily connections one has, sometimes not even thinking about it. The other, if one is so inclined, is the interplay one has with nature, the grounded lifeforms that don’t move. Maybe it is a tree, or a bush, a plant with fruit or vegetables. And while traveling, those elements that form part of the identity of one’s life, be it only an inner one, they aren’t able to be packed into the suitcase.

This week, in and around Bari in Southern Italy, has been a wonderful experience tasting many wines from indigenous varieties, thanks to all the great folks at Radici Del Sud. Meeting people, some old friends, and some new, getting them to tell their story, opening a wine or two, an immersion of sorts. It has been a really great way to have an exposure to a world that is vibrant, and to a large part, unknown to wine drinkers back in places like Texas, or for that part, California and New York. These aren’t household names, Susumaniello, Nerello Mascalese, Verdeca, Aglianico, Nero di Troia, Minutolo. Oh yes, the somm-set or the wine geeks are fully briefed on these matters. But for the other 99.9%, these are exotic, foreign, unknown.

While at one of these tastings, there came a point when the introvert within pulled the car over to the road and had a little talk with me. “Look, this is all fine, but you’ve got to give me a moment to breathe. Meeting 35 people in 2 hours and having them tell us their story, and taste their wine, well, it’s taxing. I need to step way for a moment and recharge.”

We were in Minervino Murge at Masseria Barbera, tasting Nero di Troia, Primitivo and other indigenous wines. All well and good, but the alcohol was searing my throat. I needed a breather. So I quietly slipped off from the group for a moment and walked outside to smell the rosemary.

Once outside, the forces of nature led me in a new degustation; a little like tasting a wine, but the glass is a bit larger. Here a kitten searching for the warmth of her mother’s bosom. There is the bouquet of wild flowers gathered by a darkly tanned man, the same one who rakes the rocks with a handmade tool, smoothing them out with as much intent as a Zen monk in his rock garden.

Walk a little ways and there is a secret little pine forest, where the breeze choreographs the branches beyond anything Diaghilev dared dream possible. In the middle is a worn down stone trough, perhaps carved hundreds of years ago by a soul who could never have dreamed what the 21st century would bring. Nonetheless, his (or her) influences, their touch, still makes an impression across the span of those many years.
A ways off, there is the call of a peacock, the nervous murmur of the chicken, the assertive alarm the rooster makes to all those under his care, all assembled in their courtyard, taking on the seeds and the little dramas of their daily lives.

Nearby is Maria Pia, the chef’s solitary donkey, penned in and shaking off the flies that swirl around her legs, eyes and back. How patient she is. She comes up to me, looks me in the eye, and that missing connection, one that is had at home with the cat or the dog, is made. “Tell me about your land, Maria Pia,” I ask her with my eyes. And her eyes answer back. And we walk alongside each other for a moment, before another tree, a peach or a plant, a wild artichoke, calls me over to tell me their story.

And so it goes.

Understanding wine, especially esoteric ones that showcase the distinctive richness of Italy, isn’t always just a matter of tasting them. What makes these wines so unique are also the little swirling stories around the wines. If one is to understand Nero di Troia or Primitivo, I need to also know what the animals think is important about this place, what compels the cardoon to grow abundantly in the clearing, why the peaches here are so sweet and so close to the sea at that. Then I can try to ask myself what is this Nero di Troia, what is this Minutolo, and perhaps find a better understanding of why they have decided to live out their life here, while I flit about the earth, from place to place, missing what it is I have left behind.

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