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I have never been. I imagine Puglia as a wild and rustic landscape, dry and dusty, where hearty folk live in stone houses with conical roofs and the limestone cliffs fall dramatically into the Adriatic Sea. A hot climate, where the sun beats down and scorches the red earth, and everything that grows must be rugged and steadfast. At least that's the image I have from drinking the wines. On the most recent tour of Vinitaly and the surrounding wine fairs, it was the wines from Puglia that most captured my palate and my imagination, and none more so than the ones from Francesco Marra. In a particularly over-emotional retelling of what happened: after tasting the wines of Guiseppe Rinaldi it is difficult to know what to do next, as everything seems like a step down. So as we approached the table with these unknown wines from Puglia, we weren't expecting much. Yet as we tasted with Francesco, I felt the wines resonate with such an intensity and soulfulness, that I was utterly captivated. I mumbled something about them having as much expressiveness as the great Barolos we just tasted, and as tears were brought to my eyes and Jamie poked me in the ribs and told me to get a grip and not embarrass the store*, a love affair was started with Puglia, at least in my mind's eye.
Francesco Marra's family has been farming on the Salento Peninsula in the very south of Puglia for over 150 years. Francesco's father closed the family winery about 50 years ago, but after finishing his education in agronomy, Francesco restarted wine production in 1990. The farm covers a total area of about 70 hectares, though over 40 of those are dedicated to centuries-old olive trees of the Cellina and Ogliarola varieties. 22 hectares are planted to vines (Negroamaro and Primitivo) though most of the grapes are sold in bulk to other wine producers. Francesco uses the grapes from only two hectares to make his own wines, and his annual production is limited to about 5,000 bottles.
Francesco has been on a long road towards natural, living wines, and he finally made his first non-intervention wines in 2013 (the first vintage where he added absolutely no sulfur). The estate is being farmed completely without the use of chemicals, with the only fertilizer being green manure. The vines are grown on red soils, rich in clay and iron, and the dry and arid climate and periods of high temperatures stress the vines to produce these deep and brooding expressions. The grapes are dry-farmed and hand-harvested, with native yeast fermentation taking place in large, used oak barrels. The wines are rested for a year in stainless steel before being bottled with very little, or no sulfur. These are dense, rich, and beautiful examples of hearty and rustic wines from the Italian south. Oskar Kostecki
* this might be a bit of literary hyperbole
The 2016 vintage of Negroamaro is a powerhouse, and the wine that really made me fall in love with the work of Francesco Marra. This wine is bottled completely without any sulfur, and is a wild and deep expression of Negroamaro. The nose bursts with dark fruit, black cherry, figs, raisin, a hint of walnut, a hint of tomato leaf, dried herbs and earth. The palate carries that intensity, with the wine having a wonderful mouth-filling quality to it. It shows a bit more red fruit, with cherry and a deep raspberry appearing along with black currants, black forest fruit, and more savory herbs and undergrowth. There is still remarkable acidity here, and the palate feels very alive. A bold wine, an assault on the senses, and a wine that, for me, was a pure pleasure to drink. Pair with hearty winter foods such as braised meat or stews. Give this wine some air, it improves remarkably after being open for an hour or two. Oskar Kostecki
2017 was a much riper vintage than 2016, and this wine shows it. Francesco added a tiny bit of sulfur just at bottling. The nose opens with notes of plum, a hint of prune, dark forest fruit, stewed raspberry and blackberry, dried cherry, grape jam (a high quality one), baking spice, nutmeg, and a hint of forest undergrowth. The palate is juicy, still with a lot of energy and acidity to retain balance. Though lacking some of the subtlety and fascination of the 2016 vintage at the moment, it may be best to hold for a year or two, as I feel this will be a wonderful wine with some time to settle. That being said, there is no harm in opening it now, and indeed at a recent tasting some folks preferred the more forward aspects of the 2017. Oskar Kostecki
Wow. Full-bodied and full-blooded, this Primitivo is an intense and profound example of this variety. As with the 2017 Negroamaro, Francesco added a small amount of sulfur at bottling. The nose shows notes of red currants, black currants, black cherries, raspberry preserve, plums, raspberry leaves, cedar, dried herbs, and a hint of earthiness. On the palate there is a similar mélange of red and black fruit, with a hint of dried fruit and raisin. The wine has prominent tannins and quite warming alcohol, though with good acidity and still some modicum of freshness and lift. A serious wine. A bit edgy at the moment, this will perhaps be best in 3-5 years, though if enjoyed now, give a decant of an hour or more. Oskar Kostecki