When your family has been in Puglia since 1650, a hundred-year-old winery is considered a recent acquisition. Driving up to the majestic Villa Cefalicchio we felt as though we’d been transported to the set of the classic 1963 Italian film The Leopard. We are met by Nicola Rossi, whose family has owned the property since 1871. He is gracious, elegant and a born aristocratic. First a lawyer, then a PhD from the London School of Economics and until recently he served in Italy’s Parliament. Now, he divides his time between Rome, where he teaches economics, and the Biodynamic wine estate he runs with his brother, Fabrizio, an agronomist and teacher.
Villa Cefalicchio has been producing wine since the late 1800s. However, like many in Puglia, these were vin de table, with the emphasis on quantity, not quality. In the early 1900s, Nicola’s grandfather started a cooperative in nearby Canosa. The Rossi family brought their grapes to the cooperative (which was the custom of the day) and also made their own wine. Everything was for local consumption. When the Nicolo and Fabrizio took control, they decided to leave the cooperative.
A generation later, the brothers have modernized the winery to compete in the world market. Fabrizio determined that Biodynamic farming was the responsible route to take, so in 1992 they became Demeter certified – the first vineyard in Southern Italy, and one the pioneers in the country. In keeping with their belief in sustainability, they’ve installed enough solar panels to produce three times more energy than the estate uses.
Cefalicchio’s philosophy is simple, “If the grapes are good enough to be table grapes, they’re good enough for our wine.” In keeping with this credo, they intervene as little as possible with the process. Yeasts are indigenous and the wines are lightly filtered. “We never filter so much as to prevent the wine from evolving; that is we never micro filter,” says Nicola. He further emphasized, “One of our few concessions to modernity is refrigeration. We thought about putting our tanks underground, but even then we would have needed refrigeration.” Because 70% of the wine is exported, and needs to be stable, sulfites are added at the end, but in such small amounts that they remain well below the limits for organic certification in the EU.
The estate encompasses 78 hectares (193 acres), 20 of which are currently planted in grapes. The rest is a combination of olives trees, fields ready to be planted in grapes, and woods for the all-important birds. They also have a second holding of 27 hectares at another location.
Interestingly, their biggest export market is China, where Nicola feels the government’s push toward environmental awareness is fueling his wines’ success. And, because the market is so large, a “small” shipment to China is 4,000-5,000 bottles. Overall, his wines’ top destinations after China are Japan, U.S., and Italy.
Cefalicchio produces 4 red wines, all of which contain, either in whole or in blend, the Puglian grape Nero di Troia. Nicola views this grape as their regional equivalent of Pinot Noir, thus its Burgundian style. Unlike other Puglian wineries, they use Primitivo only as a blending grape, which he views as Bordeaux-like in its characteristics. Their other blending grapes are Montepulciano and Cabernet Sauvignon.
They also bottle 2 whites and a rosé. Of interest is their Moscato, which, counter to expectations for this grape, is dry. They hope it will take the place of prosecco as an aperitif. Nicola feels “It starts as an aromatic wine, but ends with a bitter note which prepares you for the [fish] meal to come.”
Before we went to the cellar, we were shown the tasting and event room. This inviting, yet cavernous space with arched ceilings was once an almond storeroom - the estate was previously an almond farm. When renovating, they retained the original chute in the ceiling through which the almonds were poured.
The cellar is dug out from the tufa stone that underlies the entire estate. This is where the barrels lie on their sides as the wine ages in large oak barrels. They intentionally selected large barrels so that the oak to wine ratio would be low, and the flavors of the delicate Nero di Troia grapes would prevail. “We don’t want to drink a chair,” he joked.
The tufa is oceanic in origin. Nicola told us that as a kid he regularly found fossils in the soft rock, including an entire fish. He believes his wines’ minerality come from the tufa’s essence. “We are doing nothing but taking the memory of the sea and putting it into the glass.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Nicola works to expand the markets for his wine. Accordingly, he convinced another large wine producer that they needed a Biodynamic wine in their portfolio. They now include his wines in their catalogue, and since they’re distributed in places his small company can’t penetrate, this inclusion has opened up new markets.
At the end of the tour, Nicola reflected on his 1992 decision. “What convinced me that my brother was right in going Biodynamic was that when you grab the earth here, it’s living. You see earthworms. It’s moving. It doesn’t matter whether the season is wet or dry. We get consistent results. It’s like a baby who hasn’t been spoiled.”
We were fortunate enough to sample Cefalicchio’s wines over a dinner at the estate’s popular restaurant, which serves classic Puglian specialities to customers who often travel long distances for the pleasure of dining here. The beautifully appointed room is an inviting blend of clean sophistication and artifacts from the country’s past.
First pour was Jalal, the Moscato successfully made to replace either prosecco or a white served with fish. Delicious. Aromatic and floral. Restrained in its fruit, we thoroughly enjoyed the freshness. This is an interesting wine and a perfect match to the house-made antipasti, which included home-cured wild boar.
With our primi pasta course, Nicola opened his favorite creation, a 2009 Romanico (100% Nero di Troia) that spent 1 year in a barrel before being bottled. Since this wine requires a minimum of 3 years on the bottle before it’s ready to be opened, our 2009 was still young, as evidenced by the “Biodynamic fizz” and “still alive” taste. Over time, it will soften as the tannins mature. In our glasses, it did the same. The intense ruby red color lets you know that it will be jammy with withered fruits, spices and licorice. If we didn’t know better, we would have labeled this as a restrained Zinfandel. Ultimately the taste defies easy categorization. Romanico is a unique wine.
With our secondi carni course, which included two local cucina povera dishes, horse and donkey, we drank the Totila, a 50/50 Nero de Troia and Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Another deep ruby wine, this is full and fragrant with hints of red fruit, spices and vanilla.
The wines were delicious, but the true treat was being able to pair them with the chef Giampiero’s unique and artisanally prepared food.
Cefalicchio’s website has detailed information on their wines, olive oils, and growing methods.