Interview with Ole Udsen – Southern Wine Italian Expert – James Meléndez / James the Wine Guy

James the Wine Guy Notes:

I very much enjoyed meeting Ole Udsen–I met Ole at the Masseria Altemura for the inaugural opening- October 2012.  I am delighted to know someone who not only is expert and extremely articulate about wine –it was nice to hear his precise knowledge on Southern Italian wine.  His deep knowledge about Southern Italy is absolutely refreshing to hear and gives the listener / the reader a reason to not just listen/read but to be excited about Southern Italian wine.  I think you will enjoy this interview as much as I have had re-reading Ole’s views, thoughts and knowledge about this special wine world of southern Italy.

While I adore all of the Italy’s–North, South, East, West, Island–I do think that Southern Italy is showing increased prominence and appreciation and that will increase over time.  While it does sound like a cliché that this or that is food friendly–I personally have experienced how Southern Italian wines lend a special hand to wine and food enjoyment.  A converting moment for me was to enjoy Octopus and Negroamaro which I was served at the Puglian Section at the Fancy Food Show in New York several years ago.  I tasted a wine that was so unique different–amazingly dry and yet so very appreciable with food–a perfect compliment–I became a convert–an admirer–a lover of the Southern Italys.

In the Proustian Questionnaire style I asked Ole a question (underlined) and he responds below in non-underlined text for easier reading.

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1. Q: Your passion about Southern Italian wines is evident–what was the bottle from this part of Italy that brought that passion forward?
A: I think the first bottle of southern Italian wine I consciously tasted was a Copertino from the Cantina Sociale di Copertino cooperative in Puglia. Lovely, soft, spicy, warm and very drinkable wine. I think the bottle that really opened my eyes to the potential for greatness in the South, however, was the 1981 Patriglione from Cosimo Taurino, also from Puglia. Patriglione was made from old vines, grown with low yields, from grapes that had been allowed to partially dry on the vine, and then fermented to dryness and aged for up to two years in wood. As you can imagine, the wine was (and remains) very big, but what struck me was the minerally elegance and the very strong varietal markers of prunes, tobacco and graphite/bakelite that were brought out by the producer. Very different to most other great wine at the time, but undoubtedly great. Both wines were dominated by the negroamaro variety, and both wines had been made by the consultant Severino Garofano. Garofano has since then become known as the father of the first vinous awakening in southern Italy, and is a hero of mine. His work was mainly in Puglia, and mainly with negroamaro, but he also consulted elsewhere, and for instance fathered both the Gravello and Duca di San Felice wines for Librandi in Calabria.

2. Q: What is your favourite varietal from this region?

A: Very difficult question. I have many favourites, depending on mood, food pairing and so on. I think my answer must come in two parts, because there is a now and a potential for the future. Right now the varietal that most impresses me from the South is primitivo. The level of primitivo winemaking in Puglia is extremely high these days, and not just from the Manduria area anymore. The Gioia del Colle area has really raised its game, and the Salento area is not far behind. The fascinating thing is that terroir differences are now obvious, without any one area completely dominating the game. In terms of potential, I think aglianico must be my favourite. While I think the winemaking record is quite a lot more patchy right now than for primitivo – even from the most stellar aglianico producers – the ultimate potential of this variety is colossal. For my money the potential is probably fully on a level with nebbiolo and sangiovese, although I hope the world will soon tire of the “nebbiolo of the South” moniker that is too frequently being used when talking about this exciting and unique variety. But… I suddenly realize that I have neglected other interesting and exciting varieties from the South. How about nerello mascalese? Or nero d’Avola, cannonau, carignano, nero di Troia, susumaniello, tintilia, gaglioppo, magliocco? Or vermentino, greco, fiano, minutolo, falanghina? Or my own little hobby horse, bovale sardo, which no-one seems to have yet made into a single-varietal wine, but which I think has great potential. And, last but not least, how about negroamaro?

3. Q: When / how will Negroamaro garner more attention?
A: Negroamaro was responsible – at least as far as I am concerned – for the first great wines coming out of the South. Severino Garofano’s style of negroamaro winemaking, which was largely responsible for most of these wines, relies quite a lot on a deliberately somewhat oxidative process to tame the wild tannins and bring out the powerful dark fruitiness of the variety. I hasten to add that I mean oxidative in the technical sense, the wines themselves are not unpleasantly oxidized at all. The resulting wines are big, round and very tertiary in the sense that they develop spicy and vegetal aromas such as oriental spices and tobacco. These are wonderful wines that I really love, but I do suspect that for the modern wine drinker, raised on a diet of out-and-out fruity red wines, such as New World cabernets and shirazes, the style may seem somewhat dated. The response from some Puglian producers has been to produce a more overtly fruity, but heavily extracted, style of negroamaro and then age it in new barriques. I don’t particularly like this style, which I think covers up both the terroir markers and the variety’s own particular aromas, and I can understand why some consumers would consider these wines rather overdone. Although I will have to say that one or two of these wines can be absolutely outstanding. I think the market future for negroamaro must lie somewhere between these two styles, and I do see signs of producers thinking along those lines. To find the new and more customer-friendly style of negroamaro, we need to go looking for certain producers’ middle-range wines, where they have deliberately gone for a quite fresh, fruity, yet deep and still spicy, style without burdening it with (too much) new wood. It is my hope and expectation that some of these producers will start using their best negroamaro old-vine grapes to produce wines in that style. I expect that within the next 5-10 years we will see, first, a trickle of such wines, and then when it catches on, quite a flood. We must not forget that there are countless thousands of hectares of negroamaro planted in Puglia’s Salento peninsula, so if these wines really take off, there can be a very large supply of them. Which of course carries the risk of overexposure with it. But we will cross that bridge when we get to it.

4. Q: Aglianico is well regarded from Southern Italy–will interest in Aglianico grow in the next few years? Where?

A: In the past, aglianico was only available from a handful of producers from Campania and Basilicata. While some of them made really good – and sometimes even great – wines, this obviously made for somewhat limited distribution. During the past 20 years, the number of aglianico vineyards and growers has increased enormously, and there is now a very wide variety of aglianico wines available. Ironically, the fact that many producers are rather small and recently started means that distribution is still limited, and there remains a big marketing challenge to attract the consumers’ attention to these often wonderful wines. Quality can be variable, but I sense that as the newcomers get their act together and gain self-confidence, we will see a much more constant level, with the best of the wines being truly world class. I predict that aglianico from southern Italy – and from the Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture zones in particular – will be on a steep upward trend, both in terms of quantity and quality, and I expect that the world will fall in love with these wines as consumers in presently immature markets gradually develop more complex tastes. This may take a while, probably anywhere from 5-20 years, but could be a sustained trend, as aglianico has the potential quality, complexity and longevity to mark it out as great.

5. Q: Talk about Aglianico aging capability

A: Aglianico is a difficult variety. In order to yield its maximum potential it needs to be grown in specific places that can accommodate its need for both good drainage and slow ripening, as well as provide the prerequisites for the extraordinary complexity and terroir expression of which the variety is capable. Then, once phenolically ripe, it has a tendency to have high sugar and tannin levels, and frequently also high acidity. As a starting point, this combination should mean a tendency to age well. However, the young wine will be quite hard and difficult to drink. Aglianico wines of old tended simply to be aged in large wood casks until mature, which could have a detrimental effect on the freshness of the fruit, but sometimes made for gloriously complex, austere and noble wines. There are some examples of extremely long-lived aglianicos made using that method, notably the 1968 Taurasis from Mastroberardino. But obviously, long ageing with the producer is not particularly conducive to cash flow. For both reasons of cash flow and toning down of the savagery of the young wines, during the past 20 years it has become very common to use deliberately oxidative winemaking practices, frequently with the use of new barriques. While this certainly mellows the wines considerably, it also tends to oxidize the wines a bit too much – as tannins are often so fierce that the oxidation needs to be quite thorough – while at the same time introducing what I think is an often unwelcome new wood influence; unwelcome because it can mask the territoriality and complex varietal characteristics of the wine. In my experience, this practice often compromises longevity. Now, obviously, longevity is not the be all and end all of great wine, but I do think that great grape varieties – think cabernet, pinot noir, nebbiolo, sangiovese – tend to express themselves at their best when made in a manner that requires ageing in order to fully express the innate quality. I do think that aglianico has all the prerequisites for being a great grape variety, and I do think that it can be made to be longevous without killing the fruit, yet without resorting to the make-up of small new wood. I see signs that some producers are coming round to that realization, and am very optimistic on behalf of aglianico that we will see some fantastic products of the terroir with the potential to age for decades.

6. Q: What is unique about Southern Italy as compared with Northern Italy–weather? terrain? Soil? Ripening time?

A: Italy is the most varied wine country in the world, with an enormous range of climates, soils, altitudes and exposures throughout its length. However, the true stand-out fact of Italy is the enormous range of grape varieties to choose from. This is especially true of southern Italy, whose ampelographic heritage has only recently started being catalogued. New discoveries of ancient varieties are frequent these days, and therefore the wine future of the South remains quite unpredictable. For the likes of me, this is a glorious fact, and one that will fuel much research and passion for many years. In terms of the market place, this is perhaps less beneficial, as the plethora of varieties can stand in the way of instant recognisability by those with less of a penchant for research and intellectualization.

7. Q: I am finding many more wines from Southern Italy now more than ever–do you think that will continue?

A: Yes, definitely. The South has an enormous range of terroirs and varieties, many of which have not hit the market in a big way yet. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg, and as sound, qualitative winemaking practices proliferate you will see many more southern wines arriving at your shores.

8. Q: What are the most widely regarded producers from this region?

A: A very tough question. The South now abounds with great producers, and my answer can only be grossly unjust to the many great producers that I do not mention. Nonetheless, I will venture some personal favourites that spring immediately to mind, in no particular order: Puglia: Gianfranco Fino, Morella, Polvanera, Mille Una, Torrevento, Rivera, Michele Biancardi, I Pastini/Carparelli, Azienda Monaci/Garofano, Conti Zecca, Chiaromonte, Pietraventosa, Rosa del Golfo, Michele Calò e Figli, Leone de Castris. Basilicata: Paternoster, Musto Carmelitano, Basilisco, Grifalco, Elena Fucci, Terra dei Re. Campania: Luigi Tecce, Guastaferro, Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Villadora di Paolo, Tenuta del Barone, Calafè/Petrilli, Sarno 1860. Calabria: Librandi, Odoardi, Viola, de Luca, Du Cropio, Fattoria San Francesco. Sicily: Benanti, COS, Arianna Occhipinti, Gulfi, Cusumano, Planeta, Tenuta delle Terre Nere, De Bartoli, Donnafugata, Salvatore Murana, Hauner, Tasca d’Almerita, Salaparuta. Sardinia: Argiolas, Attilio Contini, 6 Mura, Sardus Pater, Pala, Santadi, Capichera, Li Duni/Badesi, Tonino Arcadu.

9. Q: What is the most surprising varietal you have found from this region?

A: “Surprising” can be interpreted in many ways. One way would be to think of which variety has changed character the most. Here I would probably choose nerello mascalese, which until fairly few years ago had no reputation whatsoever, but which now is seen as an extremely able variety, capably of expressing the volcanic Etna terroir fully, with soft, scented, complex, deep yet light wines. Or it could be meant to mean which previously unknown variety has emerged to surprise us all, in which case I would probably choose minutolo, which was all but extinct, but has made a strong comeback in Puglia, where it now produces wonderfully fresh, minerally and aromatic whites of considerable charm and character. Who would have known, just 10 years ago?

10. Q: In one word how would you describe wines from South Italy?

A: Drinkable. The most important character a wine can have.

11. Q: How does Primitivo compare against California Zinfandel?

A: A mere 15 years ago, there would have been no contest. The zinfandels were ahead by decades. Since then, there has been nothing short of a revolution within primitivo winemaking in Puglia, and the very best primitivos from Puglia, now stand up to the very best from California with pride. In fact, if you ask me, the very best of Puglia is right now very slightly ahead of the best of California, although I will never lose my great love for Ridge’s Geyserville. My preference is for wine that is very much an expression of its terroir, and I tend to think these days that – barring a few great examples, notably Geyserville – Californian zinfandels tend to overly simplify the fruit and have too much new wood. This masks the terroir imprint, while the best from Puglia have managed to strike a better balance and exhibit enormous terroir minerality.

12. Q: Favourite white varietals from this region and why?

A: Vermentino, particularly from Sardinia’s Gallura area; because at its best it produces large, powerful, world-class white wines that manage to retain acidity and an amazing, Riesling-like minerality. Greco, particularly Greco di Tufo from Campania; this variety produces very particular, enormously food-friendly wines with strong terroir expression (note that Italy abounds with Greco varieties, many of which are completely unrelated to each other; the variety I mention is the one used in the Tufo area). Fiano, particularly Fiano d’Avellino from Campania; another highly distinctive variety with hazelnut and sage aromas and great potential longevity. Falanghina, from both Campania and Molise; this variety changes wildly depending on the terroir, but retains lovely citrusy aromas. Minutolo from Puglia; because it yields some wonderfully aromatic yet fresh and minerally wines, somewhat in the style of Argentina’s torrontés, just better and more minerally. Moscato; there are several moscato cultivars grown throughout the South, and it is responsible for such great sweet wines as Moscato di Saracena, Moscato di Pantelleria, Moscato di Cagliari and Moscato di Trani. Malvasia; another widespread variety with many cultivars, responsible for such diverse great wines as Malvasia di Bosa, Malvasia delle Lipari and Greco di Bianco (yes, the rare greco from the Calabrian Bianco zone is a malvasia cultivar).

13. Q: What is your favourite Southern Italian wine moment (place, occasion, particular wine)?

A: Probably the first time I tasted Gianfranco Fino’s Primitivo di Manduria “Es”. This took place in a not particularly conducive setting at Vinitaly in 2008, but the boundless energy and expressive power of the wine simply bowled me over. I have described that and a few other moments in a post on my blog:http://oleudsenwineblog.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/sentimental-fool/

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Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.

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© 2012 James Meléndez / Jaime Patricio Meléndez / James the Wine Guy— All Rights Reserved for material I have written.  Copyright does not cover responses in interviews. James the Wine Guy also on Facebook, Twitter and most major social medias.

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