Polvanera – Joy of Gioia

I am remiss. I should have written a post in praise of Polvanera a long time ago. The reason for my tardiness is not that I have wanted to keep it to myself; on the contrary, I want to spread the word. It is probably because Polvanera’s wines somehow have tended to appear between those occasions where I have been tasting with a view to posting tasting notes. That is unfortunate, for if there is any producer that for me epitomizes the amazing leap that the wines of Gioia del Colle have taken in the past few years, it is Polvanera.

I first tasted the wines of Polvanera at the Apulia Wine Identity event in 2011, and they were nothing short of revelatory. I have long held that there was nothing in the soil or climatic conditions of the Gioia del Colle area that would prevent primitivo from there from attaining the same heights as the primitivos of Manduria, which have been on a serious roll for almost two decades now. Tank samples and scattered bottles here and there had hinted at the potential, but nothing had really shone until that day. It was therefore exhilarating to come across the fantastic, fully-fledged Polvanera wines, which in one fell swoop rendered my previous experiences obsolete, and clearly demonstrated that Gioia has all of the natural requirements for making world-beating wines.

To be clear: While there can be no excuse for quality deficiencies, the soils and climates of Manduria and Gioia are quite unlike each other. Manduria is on the Ionian coast, has very little elevation, a coastal, warm climate and a base of hard, thick limestone with fairly thick to very thin topsoils. Gioia, on the other hand, is in the middle of the Apulian peninsula, so climatically much less coastal, is subject to incessant wind across the peninsula, and for a large part is at fairly significant elevation, at some 200 – 500 m above sea level; the subsoil is the distinctive Murge karst limestone, very hard, but extremely fast-draining, with extremely thin, poor topsoils.

You can imagine that these different conditions render wines that have rather different structural balances, with the cooler Gioia zone naturally providing somewhat slimmer, firmer wines with higher acidity. They certainly seem to take a year or two more than the primitivos from Manduria to emerge from youthful sulkiness into openness and drinkability. But: While primitivo is so called because it ripens early, acidity is naturally very high, and does not decline to a balanced level unless a part of the grapes are in fact partially dried on the vine. The effects of the necessary “hang time” or hyper-maturity in some of the grapes may tone down some of the differences that come from the soil and climate. For me, this is most clearly borne out in the fruitiness, which, when best, has an enormously intense core of essence of cherry, coupled with blueberries and soft dark plums, no matter where the primitivo comes from.

The thoughtful, but dynamic and driven, Polvanera owner Filippo Cassano started out from a basis of an eternity of family presence in the area. In 2003 he purchased the Masseria Antonietta in the Marchesana area near Gioia del Colle, documented as having been planted with bush vine (alberello) primitivo since at least the latter half of the 19th century. He set about rebuilding the masseria, and made his winemaking facilities in an 8-metre deep excavation in the karstic rock of the area, which confers stable temperature and humidity year-round. Polvanera literally means black soil, so named after the dark soils surrounding the masseria.

Emphasis is on the vineyards, of which Cassano owns 25 hectares. 15 of these hectares are planted with primitivo and the rest with aleatico, aglianico, (fiano) minutolo, falanghina and moscato. Another 15 hectares are under long-term lease; these are ancient alberello vineyards, with an age of at least 40 years, but frequently up to 60 years. Yields in these old vineyards are very low, at about 500 grammes per vine (!). The vineyards are certified biologically managed.

With the fantastic quality of the fruit coming in the door, winemaking is deliberately extremely simple, and takes place exclusively in stainless steel. No wood is used at all. And the results are amazing across the fairly wide range, to the point of Polvanera probably being my desert island wine producer right now.

Tasting notes for some of the range; you will have to excuse the profusion of strong language, but I simply love these wines:

Puglia Fiano Minutolo 2012
Delicious, fresh, sweet and very flowery nose, with elderflower, cool mountain brook minerality, light and sour apple. Light and fresh, rounded, good fruitiness. Good length, repeats the nose, fresh and perfumed, granitic minerality. Delicious wine, a very good interpretation of the exciting minutolo variety. If I would have any critical comment it would be that the wine may just be slightly further along the aromatic spectrum than I would ideally like.

Puglia Aglianico 2008
Dry, dark, serious, deep nose, yet fresh and young, with black cherries, dry barnyard, tobacco, violets, liquorice and a slight hint of Camembert. Medium weight, juicy, dry and tight, with austere tannins, yet with good fruit sweetness. Long, with perfumed black cherries, violets, liquorice, hints of barnyard and tobacco, the merest hint of acidic white chocolate. An interesting, rounded but concentrated version of aglianico, with sweet fruit to the fore and dry austere tannins providing the supporting frame.

Gioia del Colle Primitivo 14 Vigneto Marchesana 2009
Intensely fruity but fresh and lively nose with wild blueberries, acidified milk, plums, oriental spices, sweet exotic wood, a touch of bonfire and sweet meat. Medium weight, intensely fruity/juicy, lively, with good acidity and rounded tannins. Long, with blueberries, bonfire, violets, minerals, sweet oriental spices, a touch of incense and hints of acidic white chocolate/acidified milk. A delicious wine, extremely drinkable.

Gioia del Colle Primitivo 16 Vigneto San Benedetto 2009
Deep, dark, intense, tight and muscular nose with dried cherries, blueberries, tobacco, liquorice, mineral, spicy wood tar, dry garrigue and violets; a nose of impressive weight, authority and dry seriousness, amazing sense of place here. Powerful, intense, juicy, dry and massive in the mouth, with good acidity and tight, handsome grape tannins. Extremely long and full, very intense, with essence of cherry, tobaccoey prune sauce, liquorice, dry garrigue, touches of barnyard, violets and mineral, with time develops a clear chalky note. En extremely lovely wine, so expressive of the tough, hard subsoil and dry, windswept climate of Gioia del Colle.

Gioia del Colle Primitivo 17 Vigneto Montovella 2009
Hugely powerful, intense and concentrated nose with wild cherry essence, wild prune sauce, great minerality, sweet oriental spices, garrigue, liquorice, sweet wood tar, at the same time huge, complex and elegant; wow! Huge in the mouth, searingly intense, with great fruit sweetness, good acidity and firm tannin structure, all tied together by a fat, pulpy, yet elegant and lively texture. Colossally long, intense and concentrated, repeating all of the impressions from the nose + intense blueberries (such as in my Greenlandic childhood), incense, and massive minerality. An absolutely wild wine, what terroir, what freshness, what juiciness; a masterpiece!

Puglia Aleatico 2008
Delicious, fresh, musky nose with plum, blackcurrants, sweet spices and sweet flowers, then an underlying mineral vein. Light to medium weight in the mouth, with a fresh sweetness, very slight grape tannins, soft and delicious mouthfeel. Long and lovely, repeating the nose, then fading out with cinnamon, bark and flowers. Lovely, clean, fresh and soft.

Puglia Primitivo Dolce 21 2007
Powerful, dark, exuberantly berryish nose with cherry essence, blueberries, ferrous minerality, garrigue, grilled herbs, violets and prune sauce. Powerful, juicy and fresh in the mouth, with good grape tannins elegantly balancing lovely sweetness. Long and intense, repeating the nose in a fresh, juicy, lively, yet deep and dark framework. Lovely, completely avoids the somewhat tired beefiness of some sweet primitivos.

I adore these wines. They come closer to my notion of the perfect expression of Gioia del Colle terroir through primitivo than any other wines. Interestingly, it is the 17 that really gets me fired up, while it is the 16 that for Filippo Cassano is the real expression of the zone. The 16 is certainly slightly tighter and slightly less fruit exuberant, and there is a good argument to say that this more closely reflects the harshness of the area, but I must give in to my very immediate entusiasm for the sheer intensity of the 17. At any rate, all of the wines are so accomplished, pulling off the difficult trick of combining great fruitiness, expressivity and immediacy with elegance and minerality.

There is as yet no importer in Denmark. Somebody really has missed the boat here.

Yours truly

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