Among my very favorite things to do while in bella Italia is to visit the wineries. As one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world, some of the very best come from Italy. Italy supplies nearly one-third of the global wine production. In fact, Italy is now the world’s largest wine producer by volume, closely followed by France. With more than one million vineyards under cultivation, Italian vintners know a thing or two when it comes to making delicious wine. Read more
Have you ever been to a winery that is somewhere between heaven and bliss? I’m not sure that spot exists, but I would say this describes the popular Castello Monaci winery in Puglia. The sun-drenched vineyards lie between the Ionian and Adriatic seas in Puglia’s Salento region. Nestled in the “heel of the boot” that is Italy, Castello Monaci is a point of reference winery that cultivates the unique characters of native grapes Negroamaro, Primitivo and Malvasia Nera di Lecce. The intense sunlight on the land is softened by the cooling effects of the ocean breezes, contributing to a special kind of wine, those infused with an ancient minerality.
I had the opportunity to visit the Castello Monaci recently with a small group of friends. Founded by monks in 1492, it has maintained a long winemaking tradition ever since. It is a vision from a fairytale. Embellished by statues sculpted in soft, ivory colored stone, the crenelated walls encase a courtyard garden infused with loveliness. A popular place for weddings and celebrations, the large and stately interior rooms could accommodate any event with finesse. Lina Memmo, whose family has owned the estate since the 19th century, currently owns the property along with her husband Vitantonio Seracca.
As you enter the estate, a long tree-lined road leads up to the castle and cellar. Over 350 acres of grapevines fan out broadly on either side, the fruit still small but ripening in clusters under the warmth of the sun. Each section of vineyard is cultivated, collected and vinified in small tanks. The vintner would say that these particular wines are disegnati dal sole, or ‘crafted by the sun.’
The winery is expansive. Less than 20 years ago Castello Monaci produced 20,000 bottles but today production has increased to nearly 2 million bottles due to the growth of the estate. Gruppo Italiano Vino (GIV), Italy’s largest wine company, manages the estates wine-making activities.
Claudio, our tour guide, took us through the wine production area, a refrigerated crushing system with temperature controlled steel tanks that allow limited quantities of grapes to be vinified separately.
The cellar holds over 1,000 barrels of wine.
The land is thick with tufa, volcanic rock that is present in the soil. Claudio explained that as it travels to the surface, its white color reflects the light and increases the benefits to the grapevines. In the cellar, a wall of tufa acts as an effective source of insulation to keep the temperature cool.
After the wine tour of the cellar came the product tasting.
During the wine tasting, I learned that most of the Castello Monaci wines are named after mythical Greek characters – Medos, Kreos, Aiace, Acante, Artas, and Piluna – as a tribute to Apulia’s early Greek origins. The Primitivo, Negramaro and Malvasia nera di Lecce grapes are cultivated right in the vineyard on the estate.
Kreos, a delicate rosato of 90% Negroamaro and 10% Malvasia nera di Lecce, was one of my favorites. Its name comes from Eos, goddess of the sun whom Homer called goddess with the rosy finger. It is a perfect warm weather wine which is fermented in special steel vats with a short contact between the skins and juice. Bright pink in intensity, it brings to mind sea corals of the Mediterranean.
Another excellent wine is the Piluna Primitivo. Piluna means “tufa pot” in Greek and is produced by a well-known grape around the world, the Zinfandel. Some of the wine matures in French barrels for 6 months while the rest remains in steel. The color is dark crimson with a robust yet velvety feel to the mouth. It carries an essence of ripe red fruits with hints of vanilla and pepper.
Liante “Wind of the Levant” Salice Salentino is named after the “icy wind of winter and the hot wind of summer which blows strongly over Puglia.” This deep, ruby-red wine is obtained from Negroamaro and Malvasia nera di Lecce grapes. They are separately vinified because of their different times of ripening. Hints of wild cherry, chocolate and vanilla combine with a warm and balanced flavor.
Interesting to note is the icon that represents Castello Monaci. It is a large M with a horizontal line down the middle. Let me explain the meaning of the icon with the words of Castello Monaci ~
“A name embracing several facets. A meridian, a line which divides part of the earth. A big M. Castello Monaci. A symbol, a brand, which stands for the union of the work of man and of the sun. Creating a unique whole.”
The following photos are of the Castello Monaci, ending with the lovely palm-lined courtyard.
Italy, I know you well. Pretty well, that is. In all of my visits from across the pond, there was only one region that I had not yet discovered. Puglia, situated on the south-eastern tip of the Italian peninsula, right into the heel of the boot. I knew I would go one day and explore these ancient lands of olive groves and vineyards, a land steeped in history. I had developed a deep appreciation for southern Italy and I wanted to experience more of it. Puglia, in a sense, was the final frontier for me.
My opportunity came this last May when I finally made the decision, after backing out once, to fly to Venice and meet some blogger friends whom I had come to know through Twitter. Among them were Margie Miklas from Florida, and Ishita Sood who came all the way from India. Also accompanying us was Victoria DeMaio who leads 10 day group experiences in Puglia at an extremely reasonable price that is all-inclusive. I checked out her tour, Let’s Kick Up Our Heelz in Puglia! and signed on. From Venice, although Ishita would have to fly home, Margie and I would follow Victoria to Puglia.
With a firm resolve, I packed my bags and embarked on an unforgettable experience in Italy, one that I had least expected.
Puglia is stunning. I never imagined it to be like this. The truth is, I encountered warm and authentic people, delicious yet simple food, exotic weather, and ancient history with every turn. Victoria knew several of the local residents so we were introduced and immediately pulled into a circle of friends.
Although we stayed just outside of Lecce in Masseria Provenzani, we took day trips to beautiful white villages with charming walkways that meandered between tall buildings. A stop in Alberobello to see the trulli houses was a unique experience. We even had the opportunity to take a tour through one.
Masseria Provenzani, (southern term for agriturismo) our lodging for ten days, was lush with climbing Jasmine and blooming Bougainvillea that covered the long pergolas, providing a soothing retreat from the sun. I loved the ease of staying in one place instead of packing my bags and moving to another place like I usually do.
Cooking classes, taught by Mamma Giulia, were held at the masseria. We learned the art of Puglia bread making and dolci (sweet desserts). Of course, the delicious wine from the region flowed freely. We all knew that a chef is at her best accompanied by a glass of vino rosso or bianco.
We all kicked up a lot of flour and dropped bits of dough everywhere, but we laughed hard and enjoyed the tasty outcome of our efforts.
The Puglia Wine School, operated by Michele Pasero, was a lot of fun. Showcasing the wines of the region, we enjoyed tasting the delicious varietals.
We had the pleasure of spending the days with Daniela, our lovely young tour guide who shared Puglia’s history in a fascinating way. She had the ability to conjure up images of the past that kept me entranced the entire time.
Wineries were on the agenda, much to my delight. The ambience and tasting were unforgettable.
We toured a local olive farm and had a picnic in the orchard consisting of delicious traditional dishes of Puglia, prepared by local residents.
There was a delectable spread of dishes that ended with a large platter of dolci, or sweets. The difficulty was choosing one or two when I wanted to taste them all.
I had never met a cartapesta (paper mache) maestro until we made a visit to Carlos shop in Lecce.
Shops, stores, outdoor produce and fish markets, it’s all here in Puglia.
If not for Victoria and the encouragement from my friends, I would not have discovered Puglia’s exciting and unique attributes. I am so glad the I made the decision to go to Puglia with Victoria. There is no possible way I could have become so well acquainted with this region of southern Italy on my own. To think that I almost missed going makes me literally cringe. I truly had a fabulous time, and made many new friends.
Will I return to Puglia? I’m sure I will one day. I love the south of Italy more with each new visit. It is here that I have found the heart and soul of Italy. It is warm, unique, beautiful, tasty, and the kind of place that makes me want to linger.