Apulia Sparkles

The best sparkling wines from Apulia are made with a grape variety found nowhere else

It is a long-standing stereotype that “the south” cannot make sparkling wines of any real interest because the climate is too hot and sunny, meaning

  1. the grapes that thrive there lack the necessary acidity for great sparkling wine
  2. the grapes that are generally acknowledged as making the best sparkling wines (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, even Riesling) all thrive at more northern latitudes

But then, stereotypes are meant to be broken.

Arising from near-oblivion, an ancient variety from Apulia (that’s the part of Italy that makes up the heel of the boot, if you need a frame of reference) has emerged to show its quality for white table wines and sparkling wines.

Who Found It?

The Angiuli family of Cantina Angiuli Donato in Adelfia was looking to get into sparkling wines, and wanted advice on which local grapes could best be used for them. They approached the enology and viticulture professors of the local university and were told that a little-known local variety called Maruggio (now called Maresco) would be the best choice.

The search was on.

Old vine material was located in vineyards owned by local farmers near to the town of Maruggio, the namesake of the grape variety. After that year’s harvest, test vinifications were made to see what could be done with the grape for sparkling wine.

They showed enormous potential.

Massal selections were made, in 2011 a new vineyard was planted on the Angiuli estate. Starting with just 700 bottles made, the wine was a rousing success. Other producers took note of the “new” grape and the Angiulis’ success with it, planted their own vines of the variety and started making sparkling wines and still wines. And the rest is history, as they say.

Vito Donato handing a glass of his Maresco Sparkling wine to a guest
Vito Angiuli passing on a precious taste of his sparkling Maresco.

Maruggio/Maresco

The grape was not “new”, of course, but actually very old. It was so uncommon, and so forgotten (or unimportant) that it wasn’t even found on the Italian National Registry of wine grapes. This may seem nothing more than a bureaucratic nuisance, but there are real-world implications of this. If a grape is not on the registry, its vineyard acreage is not measured. And the name of the grape cannot be printed on the bottle. And any higher-quality appellations – DOCG and DOC are out of the question, but so are even IGT wines – cannot be used, because these appellations have rules specifying which grapes can be used.

As of 2017 the grape has been added to the National Registry, and it has undergone a name change. Or better: a name clarification.

The grape is now called Maresco, because this is an old alternative name for the variety and Italian law now forbids the use of place names for grape varieties in order to avoid confusion – the kind of confusion that has dogged poor Montepulciano, for example, for centuries. With its addition to the registry, it was necessary to avoid using a place name for the grape. Having an ancient synonym was both convenient and practical.

Why Maresco for Sparkling Wines?

Quite simply, it has very high acidity even when it is fully-ripe. And that is one of the secrets to making a great sparkling wine:you need ripe grapes AND high acidity to get the best results. Many would-be producers of sparkling wines get around the problem of insufficient acidity by harvesting early enough that the grapes still have high acid. Unfortunately, this typically comes at the cost of fruit ripeness. This often leads to harsh, simple wines. Harvesting too late or in very warm climates leads to flabbier wines that lack crispness and are less refreshing. This is one of the reasons why most of the world’s best sparkling wines come from high latitudes (Champagne or England) or vineyards in cooler places (higher altitudes, such as in Trentino or Franciacorta, for example)

So you can see why a southern grape that keeps its acidity even when fully ripened under the Mediterranean sun could be an exciting discovery!

Two Sparkling Wines to Look For

Cantina Antonio Donati – Maccone Ru’ Metodo Ancestrale Brut Puglia Bianco IGT 11.5% abv

The wine that started it all. Made from 100% Maresco, aged for five years on the lees (the one I tried was filled in June 2018 and sold out by October). There is no dosage. The bottle says Metodo Ancestrale, but the wine begins fermentation in tanks before being transferred to the bottle to complete fermentation.

A bottle of Maccon Ru' sparkling Maresco from Cantina Angiuli Donato
Maccone Ru’, from Cantina Angiuli Donato

Great freshness here, and unbelievably sweet fruit – ripe apple and candied lemon – dominate the palate. Greengage and even a hint of garrigues herbs are in the finish, with plenty of salty minerality before a nuance of bread and butter. The wine is bone dry, which makes the sweetness of the fruit (those fully ripe grapes) both surprising and delightful. Very long finish, very refreshing and very enjoyable.

L’Archetipo – Marasco Brut Nature Millesimato 2016 Salento IGT 12% abv

This estate practices synergistic viticulture – a step beyond even biodynamic philosophy, though the estate’s founder and patriarch, Francesco Valentino Dibenedetto, had worked biodynamically and organically for decades before switching to synergistic principles. The wines receive little or no sulphur and use only indigenous yeasts – in fact, the wines receive nothing at all, not even dosage in the case of sparkling wines.

Like the Ru’, above, this Marasco is made from 100% Maresco, made following the precepts of Metodo Ancestrale. The vineyard was just four years old at the time of harvest. The winemaking is slightly oxidative, with plenty of skin and lees contact, a very cool 40-day ferment followed by months of batonnâge. Sulphur is only added at bottling, and only very little.

A bottle of Marasco sparkling Maresco from l'Archetipo
Sparkling Maresco from l’Archetipo

Salty and redolent of roasted hazelnut, there is excellent freshness on the palate. Good, ripe green apple and lemon peel, with plenty of fine saline length. Has no sugar and doesn’t need it, the wine is in superb balance without it – and if you like a slightly oxidative style of sparkler (like many blanc de noirs Champagnes), this is the wine for you.

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