Wine and architecture
Visiting Trulli homes in the Itria Valley.
Wednesday 25 May 2022
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A sea of miniature stone pyramids prod at the sky, like dozens of elves in grey caps, sitting around on cobbled streets. These are trulli - traditional dry-stone huts which are a classic sight on Puglia’s skyline.
There are thousands of these dwellings spread across the Itria Valley, on the region’s Adriatic coast, making its towns look like a Mediterranean Middle Earth - Tolkein mixed with Umberto Eco. The uniqueness of these quirky structures, some of which are still used as homes today, won them their place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list back in 1996 and they’ve been one of Puglia’s biggest attractions ever since. But is there a link between the region’s charming architecture and its blossoming wine industry, another area that has been drawing in more visitors each year?
On the surface, any connection is hard to see. Dig a little deeper though and you hit the answer: the luminous limestone that forms these huts runs in a deep bed under Puglia, called the Karst Plateau.
The limestone gives the hilltop towns and conical trulli their mystical white glow while imparting to many of the region’s wines their signature minerality.
Formed from the skeletons of marine animals left on the bottom of oceans and lakes millions of years ago, limestone confers a fresh, almost salty taste to wine. As a result, some of the best wine regions in the world happen to sit on limestone soil.
“Limestone soils are also rich in calcium - producing wines with structure, longevity, and powerful tannins. It’s no wonder that Puglia’s two prime grapes - Negroamaro and Primitivo - are praised for the deep and rich flavours of their wines,” says Oleg Dmitriev of Independent Wine, a stockist which sources directly from small, family-owned wineries in Italy.
Puglia’s limestone landscape and architecture also serve to create a dry microclimate at the soil level, Roberto Guarini of the Castello Frisari winery tells me. This is important in decreasing air humidity and improving the life of the plants and buildings in a region completely surrounded by the sea.
“Here the karst/limestone soils mean we can have the right acidity in red wines and an incredible minerality in rosé and white wines,” Guarini says, “which combine body with an unexpected freshness.”
“The Apulian karst plateau is full of caves and ravines,” adds Giordano Sabato, who grew up in the area and is now Sommelier and Maître d’ at Paragon 700, a local hotel. “These feed a complex underground water network, from which the roots of the vines draw during the hot summer months.”
The grapes of rock
Just as Puglia’s towns conjure images of gleaming white buildings, its vineyards evoke visions of sunset soils. The red clay earth - called terra rossa - forms on top of limestone bedrock in karst regions. As locals say: it is the same stone that makes the cities white that makes the vineyards red.
The connections don’t end there, either. The trulli did not just serve as homes - some were used as winemaking and storage facilities. The only other place in Europe where you can find trulli is the Rhineland in Germany where limestone glows in the ground - the result of migrant grape pickers from Puglia building themselves homes away from home while working in the foreign vineyards.
Even today, many Apulian wineries are housed inside limestone buildings - including one, Cantine Barsento, that is carved 13m down into a limestone rock.
“Wine and architecture are linked in many ways here,” Guarini says. “Wine is often part of Apulian family life and many people still make wine at home. There are plenty of types of architecture specific to the area connected with winemaking…from the old masseria [fortified farmhouses you find in Pugli] to castles with vineyards and the buildings designed by local cantina sociale [wine cooperatives]. For us as farmers, vineyards are architecture made of nature.”
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