2009 Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva

Hello friends. The Gambero Rosso’s “Vini d’Italia” guide, published each year, is the most influential wine review publication in Italy. To give you an idea of its scope, its most recent guide evaluated around 20,000 wines, using a two-step process: first, a series of blind tastings in the region of origin; then, a final round of tastings at Gambero Rosso’s headquarters in Rome.

The review scale is simple, reminiscent of Michelin stars, but with glasses (bicchieri) in place of stars. Wines are either unrated, or receive one glass (good), two glasses (very good), or three glasses (extraordinary). Last year, a mere 400 wines (2% of those evaluated) received the coveted “tre bicchieri” review.

As you’d imagine, about half come from the big three of Tuscany, Piedmont, and Veneto, and as you’d imagine, the price points for many of those wines are quite high.

Today, I thought we’d go in a different direction: the lowest-priced winner of the Tre Bicchieri:

Someone in the wine trade told me that this would be akin to Michelin awarding three stars to a really good burger joint. That’s likely a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact remains: this is a fine value from southern Italy.

It has been a good summer for us on the value-imports side. We’ve had two from France (Lou Ven Tou and Les Capucins) and one from Spain (Fabla Old-Vine Garnacha). Now we can add Italy, and in truth, this is more of an autumn-into-winter wine, but there’s certainly enough rustic pleasure to crack a bottle with a late-summer BBQ if you’re so inclined.

The timing here is fortuitous. Since I just covered Puglia in my ongoing preparations for my January WSET exam, I can geek out a little more than average on this area and can tell you, for example, from my notes, that the soils are a “calcerous base overlain with by rich iron oxide topsoils.” Or I can tell you that Puglia is not exactly a region known for quality. In fact, less than 25% of Puglia wine makes it into bottled wine. The rest: steeped with herbs and turned into vermouth or worse, distilled into some throat-scorching Italian spirit.

Furthermore, only 2% of overall production in Puglia (the heel of the boot, as you can see here) is DOC quality. The nice thing about a region with a humble reputation: it depresses pricing, and that’s how we get a wine from Salice Salentino DOC (the star sub-region of Puglia) that takes home the Tre Bicchieri at such an accessible tariff.

The grape in this part of the world is Negroamaro. It’s a variety that needs a serious amount of heat to ripen (in that part of the world, it’s known as the late ripener, while Primitivo/Zinfandel is the *early* ripener. yikes.), and if it doesn’t get ripe enough, its name (which translates to Blackbitter) starts to make sense. Fortunately, sun-soaked Puglia gets plenty of heat units.

This Cantele begins with a nose of deep, earthy, black fruit, with lovely spiced-meat/charcuterie nuance. That earthiness really shines, with a great mineral/silty character. The palate continues the earth-driven black fruits, and by the time we hit the mid-palate, the chewy tannins are already taking over. It’s the bottled version of a sunny Puglian summer, all joyful rusticity. For those of us with Italian-inflected palates, who appreciate a dash of bitters to go with our richer flavors, this is a killer, rolling into a chewy finish, redolent of black tea leaves and Aperol. Deep, intense, and unabashedly Italian, it deserves every Bicchieri it got.

First come first served up to 12 bottles, and the wine should arrive in about a week, at which point it will be ready for pickup or shipping during the next temperature-appropriate shipping window.

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