By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 29 October 2016
If you are a fan of hearty deep coloured southern Italian reds like Primitivo or Nero d’Avola, you might be interested in my latest find: a rare ancient grape called Susumaniello.
Recently rediscovered by Californian-born Mark Shannon, who lives and works in Puglia with his Italian partner Elvezia Sbalchiero (pictured below right), who has unearthed old plantings of 80 year old Susumaniello vines in the Salento peninsula. Locally it is known as the ‘donkey’ grape, but whilst Shannon finds it a tricky obstinate grape to work with, he has grown rather fond of Susumaniello: “it is resilient, reliable and obstinate – with a heart of gold”, says Shannon.
The donkey connection comes from the name. Susumaniello means ‘little donkey’ in local Salento dialect. “We believe it was named due to the vine’s vigour and ability to bear heavy loads especially when young, like a donkey”, says Shannon. Others think it may have been named after Sumanus, the Roman god of evening rain.
“It is relatively easy to grow, but not necessarily to the specification a winemaker might seek – and it is not at all easy to vinify. It is very ‘donkey-like’ in that regard as well”, says Shannon. He finds it grows best on well-drained sandy soils, which are plentiful in Salento peninsula. It is able to grow in completely unirrigated sandy soils and can withstand the harsh droughts of Puglian summers well.
“In the winery, if it is made as a traditional red wine the tannins will require many, many years to settle down and the delightful fruit will be undoubtedly well lost”, says Shannon. “Susumaniello needs to be treated carefully, much more so than other grapes we work with like Primitivo”, he says.
“We keep our Susumaniello grapes cold in tanks, with the most minimal of cap management and press it as soon as the tannins are correct (still at very high sugar). I do not think oak brings anything to well-made Puglian wines. They have a beauty and allure all on their own and do not need to be disguised by other flavours”, says Shannon.
What particularly fascinates Shannon is the taste of this wine. “After years of experience tasting wines across the New World and Italy, Elvezia and I have found that most red wines fit into three basic fruit descriptors: cherry, plum or raspberry. Yet Susumaniello made well is completely different and has a unique peculiarity – - it smells of blueberries”, says Shannon.
“It is so outside the usual flavour profile of red wines that you cannot help but pay attention to it. That combined with hints of rhubarb and white pepper makes for a really interesting engaging flavour”, he says
The origin of this rare Puglian grape is shrouded in mystery. Some believe it may, like Primitivo, have come from Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, whilst others including Shannon believe Susumaniello is indigenous to Puglia. “It is strictly Puglian”, says Shannon, “you won’t find it growing elsewhere”. It grows mainly in the northwest and south east of Brindisi, where it is also often blended with Negroamaro or Malvasia Nera.
Recently grape geneticist Jose Voumailloz discovered that Susumaniello was a ‘spontaneous’ cross between the prolific white Garganega grape (famous in Soave) and local red Puglian table grape, Uva Sogra. If this is the case it is related to some of Italy’s more famous grapes like Trebbiano, Marzemino, Malvasia and Catarratto.
As Shannon is based in Puglia, where he makes the A Mano range, I asked him if he had discovered any other interesting Puglian grapes. “There is currently a buzz amongst local winemakers about the Ottavianello grape, but this makes me laugh as it is actually a French grape – Cinsault – and I find Ottavianello has a rather off-putting native aroma. I prefer Susumaniello”, he says.
With less than one hundred hectares of Susumaniello in Italy, all in Puglia, examples of 100% varietal Susumaniello wines are few and far between on our shelves. Apart from Shannon’s Imprint, you can also find examples from Luigi Rubino at Tenuta Rubino, Racemi, Lomazzi & Sarli and Angelo Maci at Cantine Due Palme, as more local wineries rediscover this unusual little-known Puglian gem.
IMPRINT SUSUMANIELLO 2014
Price: £13.95 - £14.99
Stockists: Valvona & Crolla, Giacopazzi, Fine Wine Company, The Beerhive in Edinburgh; Lockett Bros in North Berwick (some stockists may now stock 2015 vintage of this wine)
Taste: Deep coloured with distinctive blueberry fruit aromas, underlying cassis flavours and a herbal undertone. It is a big red with the kick of a donkey, but it is not as high in alcohol as other Puglian reds. Susumaniello has a lovely vibrant freshness about it from its delicious tart juicy acidity. It stole the show as the most popular star buy at our latest Hidden Italian gems tasting served alongside Italian salami platters.
Join Rose’s Hungarian Tokay (Dry & Sweet) Wine Masterclass on Tuesday 29 November at SMWS, The Vaults, Leith, Edinburgh £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com