Susumaniello (sue sue man YELL oh). Say it again. Does it make you want smile? Tasting it definitely makes me smile. It is a grape I was introduced to last September during a visit to southern Puglia, the heel of Italy’s “boot.” Apparently, the grape is found only in Puglia and has a long history in the Brindisi Province. It was thought to be originally from the Dalmatian Coast, but DNA analysis by Di Vecchi Staraz and colleagues in 2007 determined that one of its parents is Garganega, which would argue against the Dalmatian Coast. Ian d’Agata in Native Wine Grapes of Italy considers Susumaniello to be “potentially one of the up-and-coming native grapes” and notes that plantings have been increasing over the past ten years.
The grape’s name refers to its vigor when allowed to grow unimpeded by pruning or other limiting vineyard practices. Apparently, the vine can carry a heavy load like a donkey, which most likely made it popular as a component of much of the bulk wine production for which Puglia was known in the past. That vigor drops dramatically after the vine is ten-years old, which may be one of the reasons for its near demise. That decrease in vigor also may be one of the reasons for the renewed interest in the grape.
Luigi Rubino of Tenute Rubino can claim some responsibility for the increased interest and the increased production. He grows Susumaniello in the company’s Jaddico estate, about five miles north of the port city of Brindisi. Here they have almost 250 acres of Negroamaro, black Malvasia as well as white Malvasia, Primitivo and Susumaniello. He said there were Susumaniello vines on this property when his father bought it in the 1980s. Since the variety was not available to buy from another grower or a nursery, they added new vines by a process called massal selection from the existing 75-year-old vines. This process involves creating new vines by propagating cuttings taken from the healthiest, best performing vines in the vineyard. The idea is that new vines will have the genetic diversity of the old vines as well as the ability to thrive in the existing environment.
Rubino says that his ultimate goal is to have Susumaniello considered the flagship wine of the area. That is quite a goal for a grape variety that has come close to extinction. Traditionally considered to be a blending wine that provides color and tannins, its role as a mono-varietal wine is new. It appears that it can also be quite versatile. Rubino makes several very successful versions of Susumaniello, including rosé, unoaked red, late harvest appassimento red and traditional-method bubbly. Unfortunately, only the two reds are available in the U.S.
Rubino’s Salento IGT, Oltreme 2014 ($14, Vinity Wine Company), made from young vines, is a very friendly introduction to the grape’s charm. It has an appealing dark ruby color, exuberant fresh pomegranate, spicy red cherry fruit balanced with zesty acidity and finishing with dusty tannins. Rubino said that Oltreme means “beyond me” and is an homage to his wife.
Tenute Rubino, Salento IGT Torre Teste 2013 ($45 Vinity Wine Company) was the winery’s first release of a Susumaniello wine. It is made from older vines, some of which were planted in the 1930s. It is appassimento style from late harvested grapes dried for two to three weeks before fermentation. It spends 12 months in French barriques and another 12 in bottle before release. As you might expect, it is a rich and serious wine with flavors of blackberry preserves, baking spices and a touch of dark chocolate. Acidity keeps the intense flavors bright and ripe tannins provide a solid structure.
Rubino is also notable for their women’s vineyard crew. Luigi’s wife, Romina Leopardi, explained that in their area women are in charge of farming. So, it’s not such a big step from the home garden to the vineyard. As any vineyard crew, the women work year-round tending the vines from winter pruning to harvest. When harvest is complete, the winery recognizes their skill and hard work with a party open to the public with plenty of food, wine, singing and dancing, a celebration of the women’s harvest.
Another Puglian winery that is making Susumaniello wine is Masseria Li Veli owned by the Falvo family of Avignonesi in Tuscany. The Puglian property, established by Italian economist, Marquis Antonio de Viti de Marco in the early 1900s, is located south of Brindisi in Cellino San Marco. In addition to producing certified -organic grapes like Primitivo, Negroamaro and Aleatico, the Falvo family has created the ASKOS project to revive indigenous grapes that are disappearing. That project, happily, includes Susumaniello.
Since their goal is to honor ancient vines, they are using a vineyard system that they perfected in their La Cappazine vineyard in Tuscany. They grow head-pruned vines in a settonce pattern, a system developed by the Romans. Rather than planting rows of vines, each vine is the center of a hexagon of vines spaced so that every vine has the same amount of space. Since the vines are head-pruned, there are no wires and no clearly defined rows, people and equipment can have access to the vines from all direction.
While an ancient planting system is used in the vineyard, the winery is state of the art. They use modern winemaking techniques such as délestage and circulation pumping for color and flavor extraction and cooler temperature fermentation to preserve fruitiness.
Clearly this approach is working. Li Veli’s Salento IGT, ASKOS Susumaniello ($21, Dalla Terra) is deliciously juicy with bright raspberry, cherry fruit laced with anise, round and luscious in the mouth. Crisp acidity keeps it fresh, while the grape’s sturdy tannins keeps it firm.
In a very short time, I have developed a keen appreciation of a heretofore unknown grape variety (to me, at least) and its ability to adapt to many different styles. I am thankful to those intrepid vintners who are committing resources to conserving diversity in wine. It is a great and generous gift. It makes me smile.