The winemaking grape of choice in Basilicata is aglianico and I believe that I can say, without exaggeration, that everyone in the region plays some role in turning the berry into wine. There is that much of it around. As a consequence, when Silvia, Piergiorgio, Jessica and I set off from Lagopesole in search of some aglianico to taste, we thought that finding it would be a simple matter, the fact that it was a Sunday notwithstanding. We were wrong.
The road to Barile, “la citta’ del vino” (the city of wine), swooped and rolled past terraces hillsides covered with vines. Most of them still bore heavy, tight clusters of small densely-colored grapes that looked more-than-ready to squeeze. A famous winery of the area, Pater Noster, sat surrounded by acres of these pregnant vines and adjacent to a large ruin that may have been the country home of a wealthy Neopolitan once upon another century. The clouds that had hung low in the sky the night before were now sitting just on the tops of the part of the Apennine Mountains we could see and gave the vine-covered valleys a blanket against the cold air.
Piergiorgio seemed to know where he was going as we entered Barile (the Italian word for “barrel”) and took us directly to the main cantina which, it turned out, was only open from 5:00 pm to midnight. We looked to other places to taste the local wines which, given the amount of juice the area produced, should have been ubiquitous, to no avail. Finally, we parked the car in, what appeared to be the town’s main square. As we got out of the car to go who-knows-where, Silvia spotted a few elderly gentlemen chatting happily away and decided to accost them. She asked where we could go to taste and buy wine. One of the men began to speak pensively.
“Allora,” he said, using the word that most Italian sentences begin with. “It’s Sunday, but I know a guy who knows guys who make wine on Sundays. I’ll take you to him.”
As the seven of us walked down the middle of the main street of Barile, I recalled my elementary school marching band days because, like in the parades of my youth, we seemed to be the focus of attention. Even though Piergiorgio and Silvia were born and raised just a couple of hours away, we were all regarded as gli stranieri, the strangers, people to be wary and suspicious of, until we had proven ourselves worth of some trust. Fortunately, Silvia had been able establish a connection to one of the old men sufficient to earn his escort. I asked our guide his name.
“Carmine,” he said, “Carmine, Il Magnifico.”
“Piacere, Carmine, Il Magnifico,” I said with a smile. He was not interested in my name, I guess, because he never asked.
After a few hundred meters walk, we came across a rotund fellow standing along the road. Carmine called him over and told him that we were from elsewhere, some of us as far away as America, and came here to taste and buy local wine. Pasquale, as we would learn was his name, gave the matter some thought and told us to follow him. The three other men said their “arrivadercis” to us and headed back to the piazza whence we found them as we tagged along behind Pasquale. The route he took us on was down, away from the town center and toward the valley above which the town perched and, despite a severe limp, Pasquale moved along efficiently. We reached a street designated “Via Dei Vini (street of the wines)” and turned on to it. Narrow road ran along the face of the valley wall and, every few meters there was an ancient door into the rock wall of the hillside. Each of these caves, according to Pasquale, was a place where wine was made and there were several levels of these caves as the valley wall descended to its floor. There must have been forty-or-so of these caves.
Shortly, we came upon a cave with a door that wasn’t closed and bolted, as most were. Inside was a man in his forties wearing thick-soled shoes and wielding a garden hose that he was using to clean the stone floor of his “winery.” A few shiny steel tanks were the only things in sight that distinguished this from a place where wine was made and one where truck tires were changed. As we investigated further, we found bottles, corks and funnels, things that suggested wine, but the place had a grittiness about it that made us appreciate the antiseptic nature of alcohol. Pasquale explained our quest to Vincenzo, he of the thick-soled shoes and, having been commended by Carmine, Il Magnifico and Pasquale, Vincenzo welcomed us to his lair.
Vincenzo offered us a taste of his wine directly from the tank. Medium-bodied with a bit of a tart finish, the aglianico was, surprisingly, without the flaws one would expect from a “garage” wine and though, at €3 a bottle it was about twice the price of the table wine Jessica and I normally drink, we asked Vincenzo for six bottles in addition to the twelve bottles that Silvia and Piergiorgio requested. Happy to fill our orders, Vincenzo took a grubby-looking plastic pitcher, filled it with aglianico from the steel tank and, using a plastic funnel, began to fill the first of the 18 bottles. After topping off six bottles, he would stop and, one-by-one, put corks into the bottles using a hand contraption until he had six bottles ready to go. Once he boxed up the six, he would take another six empty bottles and repeat the process until all 18 were ready to go. In all, the process took about 45 minutes, all the while, we stood outside the cave as Pasquale regaled us with stories of what Barile was like in the old days. (Funny that the Italian word “regalo” means gift. Or maybe it’s just the right word for story-telling.)
We collected our wine from Vincenzo, said our farewells, and went off with Pasquale who had invited us to join him for a coffee at a nearby cafe. We drank the hot, black liquid quickly and, as we left the cafe, ran into Carmine, Il Magnifico, who wanted to hear all about our experience. Satisfied that we were leaving Barile happy to have made its acquaintance, Carmine, Il Magnifico, bowed slightly, said “arrivaderci,” and left our company.
We thanked Pasquale profusely and watched him limp away as we got into Piergiorgio’s car and headed back to Puglia and home.
Don’t forget to check out Jessica’s blog for more incredible photos at www.jessicacoup.com.