An Interview with Giovanni Zullo of Tenuta Viglione in puglia

Puglia (or Apulia as it’s known outside of Italy) is the region located on the Adriatic coast in southeastern Italy, in the “heel” of the “boot” that comprises geographic Italy. Because of its warm Mediterranean climate and relatively flat, fertile plains, wine has been produced here for thousands of years and in prodigious quantities. Puglia’s economy is heavily dependent on wine production – it currently has 25 DOC’s - and Puglia annually produces about 18 percent of all wines produced in Italy.

Among the most celebrated grape varietals from this area is Primitivo, a variety that produces an earthy, full-bodied wine with rich, concentrated flavors. Primitivo was until recently considered a typical rustic and robust Italian country wine that had little to offer a discriminating wine drinker. It wasn’t an entirely underserved reputation in that while they weren’t necessarily bad they seldom were interesting or uplifting.

However, things started to change in the 1990’s as a new generation of winemakers in Puglia started to focus on producing top-quality wines based on native varieties. The pace of change has accelerated in recent years as producers began to modernize facilities and implement quality-driven initiatives such as cutting vineyard yields, utilizing temperature-controlled tanks, sourcing grapes from the best sites and experimenting with ageing wines in small oak barrels.

Today the Puglia region is considered one of the more interesting and innovative wine regions in Italy.  In addition, Primitivo’s reputation has been burnished as quality-focused producers have started to turn out Primitivo wines of complexity and character and garnered accolades in the international wine press.

One of the most interesting areas of Puglia in terms of innovation and experimentation is the area in central Puglia area that extends from Castel del Monte in the Murgia plateau south through Altamura and Gioia del Colle to the Locorotondo area not far from the Adriatic coast. The terrain in this part of Puglia is mostly flat but dotted by gently rolling hills. Farms that mark the open countryside are surrounded by olive groves and vast, orderly vineyards whose boundaries are marked by low stone fences.

While the Primitivo grape is grown throughout central and southern Puglia, it is here in central Puglia that it becomes a very serious and interesting wine.

Primitivo is especially celebrated in this area because it is believed to have originated in the Gioia del Colle area. In the late 1700’s, Francesco Indelicati, the priest of the church in Gioia del Colle, selected a vine that he called “Primativo” because it ripened early, typically in late August or early September, and planted a vineyard of Primitivo. Because Primitivo is a hardy variety that thrives in Puglia’s hot, sunny climate it found a ready home in the Gioia del Colle area and then quickly spread throughout Puglia. Two areas where it was especially well received were the Manduria and Salento areas of southern Puglia.

Monument to Father Francesco IndelicatiAs an interesting sideline, I should note that a monument to Francesco Indelicati was recently erected at the site of the first Primitivo vineyard in Liponti, a little town outside of Gioia del Colle. The monument is engraved with a poem praising the initiatives of Father Indelicati in selecting and naming the varietal and extolling the virtues of the Primitivo grape.

One of the central Puglia’s quality-oriented producers is Giovanni Zullo, owner of Tenuta Viglione in Santeramo in Colle, a small town in west-central Puglia not far from the Basilicata border. I was pleased to be able to visit with Giovanni at his winery during my recent trip to southern Italy with my wife and favorite photographer, Julie.Angelo Coluccia, director of marketing at Tenuta Viglione

We were met at the winery by Angelo Coluccia who is in charge of marketing and sales for the winery and speaks fluent English. He gave us a brief tour of the vineyards and winery and some background on both the area and the winery.

WineWordsWisdom (WWW): What is it about this area that makes it special for growing grapes?
Angelo Coluccia (AC): Like most of Puglia, this area has a Mediterranean climate with warm summers and mild winters. However, this area is located on a high plateau known as the Murgia and we are located on the highest point of the plateau, approximately 500 meters above sea level. This higher elevation gives us some advantages like cooling breezes so the nights are somewhat cooler that on the valley floor. Hot days and cool nights are perfect for growing wine grapes.
In addition, this area was formerly a marshland that was eventually drained so the soil is dark brown in color and rich.

WWW: Can you give us some background or history on Tenuta Vignola?
AC: The Zullo family has owned this estate since the 19th century and has been producing wines for generations. The current owner is Giovanni Zullo, a fourth generation winemaker, who has completely redone the vineyards and built a new state-of-the-art bottling and ageing facility.
Tenuta Viglione, which translates as “big vine”, currently has about 100 acres of vineyards of which 80 percent is allocated to Primitivo, 18 percent to Aleatico and Merlot and the remaining 2 percent to other varieties.

WWW: So Primitivo plays a big role in Tenuta Viglione’s operations.
AC: While we produce some white wines from Falanghina as well as a rosato (rose) and an Aleatico, Primitivo is our primary product.
While Gioia del Colle is the birthplace of Primitivo, this area is generally not as well known for Primitivo as the Manduria area a little further to the south.  There are also some stylistic differences between the two areas. The Primitivos from this area are a little more what I would call “masculine” wines, more assertive and stronger than Primitivos from Manduria. 
However, Gioia del Colle Primitivos are slowly gaining recognition and acclaim. I was pleased to see that two Gioia del Colle Primitivos received Gambero Rosso’s top rating this year (Tre Bicchieri awards for 2010).

Continuing on our tour of the property, we view the estate’s original 17th century farmhouse, which is currently undergoing renovation with the goal of turning it into an agriturismo with guest rooms that will attract tourists like those that have flocked to the Umbria countryside in recent years. Since the surrounding countryside is verdant and pastoral with vineyards and olive groves and given its convenient location between Matera, Gioia del Colle and Altamura, it would seem to have great potential as an agriturismo.

Giovanni Zullo, owner of Tenuta ViglioneWe then are led into a brand new bottling, ageing and distribution facility where boxes of wines awaiting shipment are neatly stacked on top of one another. Upstairs we enter the spacious and pleasant tasting room and cantina where we meet the owner, Giovanni Zullo.

When you shake hands with Giovanni, it’s hard not to notice his tough, calloused hands, the hands of a worker. When asked about this he admits that he is not one to just sit back in an office and supervise. He is a “hands-on” manager that likes to get out in the fields and participate in the tough work of tilling and pruning. It is easy to tell from his evident enthusiasm that every grape in the vineyards is grown under his personal supervision.

He also has the weathered handsomeness, bright good looks and winsome smile that would enable him to star as a leading man in a Federico Fellini film. His English, however, is limited so Angelo has to interpret our conversation.

WineWordsWisdom (WWW): What do you think is unique about wines from Tenuta Viglione?
Giovanni Zullo (GZ): There are several things. Every wine we produce is made from native Puglia grape varieties. More importantly, we do not use a lot of wood or barriques in the winemaking process. This is not to say that we never use wood or barriques – for example, we use both in making our Marpione wine – it’s just that we typically do not use it or use a lot of it when we do. My preference is for stainless steel and large oak barrels because they have less impact on the wine. The Primitivo is an expressive varietal and we try to let the grapes speak for themselves.

WWW: Is there much difference in vintages in this part of Puglia from year to year?
GZ: We are blessed with an abundance of reliable sunshine so there is not much difference from year to year. While some years can be hotter than others the soil is a constant factor. In addition, intervention by the winemaker can even out year-to-year differences if desired or can be used to differentiate vintages if that’s their goal. For example, differences from year to year can be achieved simply through changes in a winemaker’s use of wood.
The only bad vintage I can remember was in 2002 when there was not much sun that summer and it was unusually cold in August. We didn’t bottle wine that year.

WWW: Tell me about the renovation going on in the building next door. What are your plans in this regard?
Vineyards at Tenuta Viglione GZ: Now that our new production and distribution facility is completed, I’m interested in getting our original farmhouse renovated and up and running as an agriturismo. If done right, I think we can become a prime destination for wine-loving tourists where they can relax and sample wine and have convenient access to major tourist destinations like Matera and Altamura.

WWW: Do you have any other plans for the future?
GZ: One of my major initiatives is to expand our market area, which currently consists primarily of Italy and the rest of Europe. Angelo and I are working hard to get the word out on our quality driven wines so we can enter more foreign markets. Entry into the U.S. market is one of my primary goals and we are currently looking for a U.S. importer and distributor.

Following our discussion, we had a chance to sample some Tenuta Viglione wines. My notes on the wines sampled are as follows:

2008 Johe, IGT Puglia

The wine is a blend of 50 percent Primitivo and 50 percent Aleatico grapes. It has a brilliant ruby red color with intense cherry and red fruit aromas. Its flavor is full, round and well balanced with sweet cherry and plum notes supported by a lively acidity and muted tannins. It is a wine that will drink well with pasta, pizza, red meat dishes and fresh cheeses.

Red wine bottles at the tasting2008 Repestre, Gioia del Colle DOC

This is also a blended wine consisting of 50 percent Primitivo and 50 percent Merlot that is aged in stainless-steel tanks. The wine is ruby red in color with some violet at the rim. Its taste is smooth, fruity and generous supported by bright, cherry acidity, soft tannins and a slightly tart finish. This is a pleasant wine that would go well with pasta dishes and fresh cheeses.

2008 Pri-mit-ivo, Gioia del Colle DOC

This wine is 100 percent Primitivo harvested from 25-year-old vines. Thirty percent of the wine is aged for 12 months in large barrels and the remainder in stainless steel and then combined prior to bottling. The wine has 14 percent alcohol.
The wine opens with a full bouquet of rich, almost-jammy fruit notes. It has rich and lush, dark-fruit flavors that are well balanced with good acidity, sweet spice notes and soft tannins. It has a pleasant, inviting finish. This is a very good wine that would best be enjoyed with red meats, game and tomato-based dishes.

2004 Marpione, Primitivo Riserva Gioia del Colle DOC

The wine is 100 percent Primitivo that is harvested from 60-year-old vines. The wine spends two years in large barrels and 4 months in barriques. The wine has 14.5 percent alcohol.
In the glass, the wine has an intense, opaque black color with a slight violet edge. The aromas are fragrant and spirited, evocative of cherries and red berries and wonderful to sniff. The taste is full with plum and other ripe dark fruit flavors with some spice notes supported by good acidity and tannins. This is a great expression of Primitivo, true to the variety and evidences the inspired winemaking capabilities of Tenuta Viglione.

Here’s hoping that Tenuta Viglione is successful in their search for a U.S. importer so we can all enjoy their wines.

Richard Marcis
August 17, 2010

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