Finding the Grail: the vineyards of Nardò and the divine wines of Schola Sarmenti

I’ve mentioned before my stock reply to the oft-asked question I get in the shop, “what’s your favourite wine out of all of them?”. It’s like asking me which of my kids is my favourite — it depends on the day.

Schola Sarmenti is unapologetically my favourite child right now. It was my first opportunity in three years working with these guys to get to Salento, on Italy’s heel, to meet the team and walk the vineyards. It’s owned by connected families, two brothers and a brother-in-law, a project conceived in the late ’90s with a clear vision based on a couple of core principles:

  1. To work with indigenous varietals, showcasing their best qualities.
  2. To grow locally and sustainably, restoring old vineyards where the opportunity arises and planting new vineyards with an eye on the future.

The winery itself is the town of Nardò, a restored 19th century building originally built for wine-making but abandoned for the latter half of the last century until the Marras and Calabreses got their hands on it and began an extensive three-year restoration. The original underground tanks are still there where grapes would have been dumped off the back of a horse and cart back in the day; today you walk through them, like prehistoric caves stained red, meandering between the barrels of the new generation.

The building above ground has been restored to something resembling a cathedral, with raised ceiling vaults made of tuff stone ashlars and Lecce stone. The adjoining winery is starkly contrasting, a clinical scope of plate glass and stainless steel, busy with high tech bottling and labelling lines, military-level processes ensuring the bottle looks as good as the wine will taste.

As it is in the rest of Puglia, Primitivo (California’s Zinfandel if you didn’t know) and Negroamaro are the staple grapes here, with vineyards ranging from one year old to over a hundred. Dry stone walls resembling those of Connemara loosely define vineyard boundaries, within these fields often a mix of grapes, Fiano, Chardonnay and Malvasia Nera also grown; there are even vines that remain unidentified, too old to be recorded and now part of the tapestry of field blends of the main varietals.

Edging the vineyards and between the vines flourish weeds, wild flowers and herbs, wafts of fennel, thyme and camomile combining with the busy buzz of worker bees, confirming the organic farming of the vineyards while providing a sensory experience akin to Zen. Of the new plantings, the most interesting is Susumaniello, an ancient local varietal that was nearly lost but is being revived; what is being produced from these young vines, still less than 20 years old, is breathtaking.

For me this is the grail — a diverse range of outstanding, regionally-true wines from a few local ingredients, produced by people with an ardent, visceral passion for the land, their heritage and the end product. We’ve added six new wines to the range from Schola, including the aforementioned Susumaniello, the best rosé my Dad has ever tasted, a sensational “meditation wine” sweet Primitivo produced the same way as Amarone, and a completely bonkers 18% ABV Primitivo from century-old vines.

Just make sure your grail is a big one.

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