At the restaurant Cibus in Ceglie Messapica in Puglia last month, during the #TerroirPuglia press tour, we had a just amazing lunch. We enjoyed dish after dish of amazing local food such as different crostini, yummy pies, ravioli filled with codfish, lamb stew, tagliata (sliced beef), and much more. All while we were sipping on Fabio Zullo’s wines.
Now, you might wonder: who is Fabio Zullo?
Well, I did not really know anything about him either until the lunch that day at Cibus in Ceglie Messapica.
However, in just a few hours…well, actually around 5 hours because it was a really long lunch that day LOL…I learned a lot about his winemaking story and his wines. It turned out that this agronomist, who for the last few years has been working for, and still do, the cooperative Terre di Puglia-Libera Terra that is restoring the estate confiscated from the local mafia, makes fantastic wines. I still have his Susumaniello and Negroamaro wines imprinted in my mind.
Therefore, I knew I wanted to write about it all hoping you can get to taste his wines too.
Fabio Zullo – A Young Winemaker in Puglia
“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains” – quote by Steve Jobs
Even if this quote might sound a bit corny, I remembered I had read this somewhere when I started writing this article. I believe it can fit here as behind simple pleasures or things lies often hard work and complex thought processes. And, I think it fits the wines of Masseria Masciullo. Let us find out why…
Fabio Zullo comes from a family that has been farmers and vine growers since generations back. Today, they have about 100 hectares (about 240 acres) of land in a total of which 45 hectares (110 acres) are vineyard lots. On the rest of the land, they cultivate other things such as olives and fruit. They have cultivated grapes for many years but mainly to sell the grapes or for bulk wine.
In 1998, Fabio’s parents then acquired the Masseria Masciullo (their website is still under construction) close to Mesagne where Fabio today makes his wine with his sister Maria Rita and brother Alessandro. It is an old typical pugliese farm from the 17th century where they have set up their winery in the old stable building. They started the wine production with bottled wine in 2015 only. So, it is in the last couple of years that their winery has taken off. They do all the work themselves without any staff or external oenologist.
The winery is organic and, according to the online newspaper Brindisireport.it, it was the first organic winery in the Brindisi area. Furthermore, Fabio told me that they had been doing tests for some years before 2015 to identify the vineyard lots that are best suited for the type of quality wine they want to produce. They have mainly small vats of 2500 and 4500 litres to be able to do test fermentations and maturations continuously.
As I mentioned above, they have no oenologist but rather Fabio and his family make all the decisions on their own. He says that his time working for the cooperative Libera Terra where he met a lot of people in the sector was a great learning curve.
When I asked Fabio if he could talk a bit about his vision, i.e. what type of wines he wants to produce, he answered that his idea is to make fresh, yet complex, and enjoyable wines. He wants to be able to make wines that are a pleasure to drink and that are not too heavy or overcharged with oak. In fact, when he is not convinced about a vintage they do not bottle it but rather sell it as bulk wine.
I think these traits are what spoke to me when I tasted his wines, i.e. the freshness, the clean notes where you feel the essence of the grape variety, the drinkability.
What grape varieties are they focusing on then? Well, so far mainly on Negroamaro, Susumaniello, and Chardonnay. They only do monovarietal wines but, Fabio says, not because they are averse to blends. Fabio continues to stress again that he needs to be convinced of the quality for him to bottle a wine and so far he has seen the best results by making Negroamaro and Susuamniello in purezza. A future step will probably be a blend of Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera. He already had the possibility some year ago to make such a wine but he was not convinced about the quality and thus decided against it.
We tasted the following wines:
- Chardonnay Salento IGT 2017
- Negroamaro Rosato Salento IGT 2017
- Naturae Salento IGT 2017
- Negroamaro Salento IGT 2015
- Susumaniello Salento IGT 2016
- Negroamaro 2015 matured in tonneaux, no label
Let us look a bit closer at Negroamaro and Susumaniello…
This is a grape that is believed to have Greek origin as so many other southern Italian grape varieties as a result of the Greek settlers in that area some centuries BC. However, Ian D’Agata then stresses that it has been argued that it is unrelated to any Greek varieties even though he does not state any sources for that. The first written document referring to Negro Amaro, or Negroamaro, was as late as in 1872. (See Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, p. 365) It is a grape that is most common in the Lecce, Brindisi, and Taranto area even if it can also be found in Basilicata and Campania.
Negro Amaro is, for the most part, blended with other grape varieties such as Malvasia Nera or international grapes. It has been written that monovarietal Negro Amaro wines can be boring and hard to drink. The grape’s high acidity and tannins are often considered to be best tamed by blending it with another grape.
I think Fabio Zullo shows that Negro Amaro can do splendidly well on its own! The fruity and spicy notes are very clean in both his Negro Amaro rosé wine and Negro Amaro red wines and the hints of graphite or shoe polish as some defines it are in no way overbearing. Indeed, you feel very well the freshness combined with complexity and a nice body without becoming heavy as a wine. Just as Fabio says himself, they are didactic Negro Amaro wines where the colour is not too dark and the tannins not too intrusive. (See further my article about Negro Amaro rosé wines: Negro Amaro Rosé Wines at their Best in Salento, Puglia)
At Cibus in Céglie Messápica, Fabio had also brought a bottle of a Negroamaro 2015 (without label yet) that had been matured in tonneaux. He explained how they had matured the juice in four different tonneaux barrels and that they then recently had tasted samples from each of the four barrels to see which one they liked best. Again, this is in line with their idea to only bottle the wine where they find the quality very convincing.
This was a very good example of a Negro Amaro in my opinion. It is still fresh and full-bodied without being heavy and too much influenced by the oak, and you feel the typical characters of the grape variety.
The wine I was really fascinated by was his Susumaniello IGT Salento 2016. This is a grape I have been wanting to learn more about and, especially, taste more of for some time. I have not tasted that many yet… I have often felt that I might not understand the grape because I was not often convinced of the Susumaniello wines I tried.
Fabio explained to me that it is indeed a grape that is difficult to handle both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Its acidity can drop very quickly while it is maturing on the plant and in the cellar, he says, it can be very challenging to handle its tannins.
For a long time, one considered the Susumaniello to be of Dalmatian origin but more recently it has been shown that it seems to be a crossing between Garganega and Uva Sogra. (See D’Agata, p. 443) It is a grape where the productivity apparently drops very much after the first 10 years of the vine’s life. Also, Susumaniello is for the most part used as a blend with Negro Amaro and/or Malvasia Nera. It has been rediscovered or reinvented more recently and I hope and think it is a grape that we will see more of in the near future.
I remember that I tasted it at my sommelier course around 5 years ago and thought it was very hard to drink. I asked my friends from Puglia about it and they considered it as nothing special then. LOL
Ian D’Agatha writes that it is considered a wine that needs at least 6-8 years in the bottle to settle and smoothen out the aggressive tannins. I believe that Fabio Zullo proves this to not always be the case if you manage to handle its vinification in the right manner. Of course, it will surely become even better with more years in the bottle. His Susumaniello IGT Salento 2016 that has been matured in steel is a fresh, fruity, smooth, and elegant wine where the tannins are in no way disturbing.
Anyway, you get the picture, right? That I l really liked Fabio’s Susumaniello. 🙂
After being high on great food and wine…
…we all went to take pictures of trulli in Valle d’Itria. This felt like the perfect digestive on a perfect day.
PS. For the dessert, we went looking for a local sweet wine in the cool wine cellar of the owners of Cibus, Angela and Lillino.