Food and Wine Trails of Italy: Manduria, Puglia

Cobbled alleys, frescoes, Baroque architecture, crystal-clear waters and bold reds exemplified by Primitivo di Manduria make Puglia, in Italy’s heel, an essential stage of our Food and Wine route. Expect colourful, well-structured dishes to match

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Waiting at the foot of the marble staircase that leads to frescoed bedrooms in the Palazzo Donna Elisabetta is the owner, Elisabetta Arnò. Her understated elegance – a simple, French-style dress and a pair of velvety friulane, the traditional Venetian slippers – speak of a lifetime spent between Paris and La Serenissima before heading back to her native Puglia, all the way down Italy’s heel. Strolling out to the garden, she leads the way to the shade of mighty holm oaks: ‘They are between 600 and 800 years old,’ she says with evident pride. ‘Originally, they were part of the Oritana Forest, Frederick II’s hunting place.’

This is the heart of Manduria, a small town known for being the homeland of one of the region’s boldest red wines, Primitivo di Manduria. There couldn’t be a better starting point for a wine tour. The property Elisabetta bought three years ago and converted into luxury accommodation is located in the so-called Palazzo del Vino Primitivo, built in 1881 for the wedding of wealthy landowner Don Tommaso Schiavoni-Tafuri to Countess Sabini di Altamura. ‘Her dowry included a number of vine shoots of the primitivo variety, already largely present in the Murgia region near Bari. This is how primitivo took its first steps in this territory,’ explains Elisabetta.

Manduria’s sleepy Centro Storico is a maze of cobbled alleys that come to life at night, when restaurants take to the street as waiters bring all the tables outside, and chains of colourful lights in their hundreds brighten up the atmosphere. Apulian savoury, structured dishes are a perfect match for primitivo’s intense flavours – from melt-in-the-mouth meat stews to aged cheeses like spicy Pecorino. Not to mention the most typical dish of bygone times: fave e cicoria, a soul-comforting fava bean purée with wild chicory, humble in terms of ingredients yet delicious in taste.

This part of Puglia is the northernmost, lesser-known portion of the Salento peninsula, nestled between the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas. If you look at a map of the region and draw an imaginary line from Taranto on the west coast to Brindisi on the east one, what you will see below is Salento. This vast, fertile area is only a short drive outside of Manduria, a place where the rich soil is a warm, brownish-red colour and the landscape is spider-webbed with dry stone walls and dotted with the greens of olive trees, vines and fat prickly pears, generously adorned with their ruby fruits.

No shortage of wineries and wine resorts here, some housed in a masseria – traditional 16th- or 17th-century Apulian farmhouse with a central courtyard and fortified walls. The Vinilia Wine Resort, however, was an early 1900s castle (former summer residence of that same Don Schiavoni-Tafuri), now a swish hideaway featuring the cuisine of Michelin-starred Pietro Penna – who last year added a Green Michelin star (Puglia’s very first) to his array of awards. Vegetables come straight from the restaurant garden to be turned into a work of contemporary art. His lattuga, for instance, where unpretentious lettuce is combined with the slight saltiness of caviar and the sapidity of grated dehydrated yolk, is a real pleasure for the taste buds.

The morning, while the sun is still low on the horizon, is a good time to head to the fields. Just outside Manduria, Gianfranco Fino, one of Puglia’s most respected producers, gives a tour of the oldest vineyard in his estate. As the name suggests, primitivo grapes mature before any other, which ensures high sugar and alcohol content, and the harvest often begins as early as late August. Fully respecting tradition, the vines are trained in short, knotty bushes. ‘They look like arms opening up to the sky,’ says Gianfranco, replicating the gesture with his arms. It’s the so-called alberello pugliese (Apulian small tree): the plant is kept small so it can sustain itself with the few resources available – a common training system in thirsty lands.

Gianfranco’s adventure began in 2004 when he purchased a small vineyard with wife Simona Natale. ‘Little more than one hectare of 60-year old alberelli. It was love at first sight,’ he recalls with a smile. Almost two decades later, they own a total of 23 hectares and state-of-the-art, brand-new premises.

Simona introduces their underground ageing room, where all the wines age in oak for at least nine months. It’s a veritable pagan cathedral – neat rows of French barriques rest under spectacular tufa vaults, ‘protected’ by the gentle light of a ceramic lamp that looks almost like a romanesque rose window. That calming light, made by Grottaglie-based artist Francesco Fasano, represented a ray of hope for Simona too, as construction was carried out during the uncertain times of the pandemic.

Two storeys above, chef Giannico Carruggio and his team are busy in the kitchen. Significantly named Es after the winery’s (and Puglia’s) most-awarded label – which in turn is a tribute to Sigmund Freud’s Das Ich und das Es – the restaurant serves only wines from Fino’s estate, and they’re given a suitably prominent place.

‘Usually the chef works on a menu and then the sommelier racks their brain to find the perfect wine pairing. I worked the other way round, first getting to really know their wines and then creating my dishes. It was a time of huge personal growth,’ explains Giannico.

You come here for the wine and then you fall in love with his tantalising dishes, be it the delicate red prawns of Gallipoli, wonderfully combined with a savoury strawberry gel, the ricordo di frisella (‘memory of a frisella’ – a bubble of tomato water and breadcrumbs) that looks like a jewel, or the almost poetic green ravioli ‘that wanted to be orecchiette with turnip tops’.

Often dubbed the Mediterranean Maldives, the Ionian Sea is only a quick drive away. An endless stretch of the finest sand runs all the way from Punta Prosciutto to Campomarino, bordered by emerald-turquoise waters and, on the other side, by dunes that can reach up to 8m high. The wind brings scents of juniper, mastic and myrtle and, in the distance, pink flamingos dot the brackish, shallow waters of the Salina dei Monaci nature reserve.

Campomarino makes a fitting finale to a beach-hopping day. In the small port a blindingly white panoramic big wheel towers over a handful of anchored fishing boat that are being gently rocked by the waves. Make your way to Stile Primitivo, a restaurant-bar where locals can usually be found sipping on artisanal cocktails – there are 75 gins alone on the menu – and toast the end of your trip with the well-balanced, refreshing taste of a gin-based Basil Smash.

Then, drink in hand, be sure to climb to the busy terrace upstairs for a sunset view along the coastline. Torre delle Moline, one of the watchtowers, glows in the evening light and, in the square below, children are out playing with total abandon. You’ll no doubt find the fresh basil in your glass has the same taste of pure, simple, away-from-your cares happiness.

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The route

Day 1 Manduria Start your journey at Manduria, the ‘capital’ of Primitivo. Highlights include its attractive Centro Storico as well as the evocative Giudecca, the former Jewish ghetto. Before heading out of the city to visit one of the many wineries in the area, make time to visit the Museo della Civiltà del Vino Primitivo, which reconstructs the history of this wine through tools and objects of the rural culture of the past.

Day 2 Oria to Grottaglie Explore the steep winding streets of Oria, leading to a massive gothic castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Other highlights include the well-preserved ghetto (the Jewish community was one of the oldest in Europe) and the imposing cathedral – for those with strong stomachs, the 16th-century crypt houses the mummified bodies of the Company of the Dead warriors. Dedicate the rest of the day to nearby Grottaglie, the main centre for ceramic pottery in the region. Walk the area known as the Quartiere delle Ceramiche, where you can visit hundreds of ceramic workshops.

Day 3 The White Cities North of Grottaglie, the towns of Ostuni and Martina Franca are good day-trip material. Ostuni is the more touristy, although its ornate cathedral and a handful of other grand renaissance and baroque gems will be worth the trip. Martina Franca’s medieval core is full of beautiful baroque palazzi and a profusion of butcher shops – the town is home to the finest cured meats of the region.

Days 4 and 5 The Ionian coast Spend the next couple of days exploring the stretch of coast that stretches from Punta Prosciutto to Campomarino, with its crystal-clear waters, lush Mediterranean vegetation and impressive sand dunes reaching up to 8m high. The natural reserve of the Salina dei Monaci, covering an area of about 30 hectares, is also a great spot for bird watching.

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Where to eat

Prices are per person for a three-course meal, excluding drinks, unless otherwise stated

Casamatta Think artisan tables covered in funky wallpaper, artfully mismatched chairs and a ceiling covered in recycled lights from Apulian festivals – Vinilia’s in-house restaurant is a polished affair. Pietro Penna’s creative cuisine earned him his first Michelin star in 2019, followed by a Green star in 2021. It’s no surprise: his organic garden provides many of the greens that you will find on your plate and strictly local fish and meat suppliers will do the rest. Six-course tasting menu from £85pp; wine pairing from £45pp. Contrada Scrasciosa, Manduria, 00 39 099 990 8013,

Es An address for wine lovers located on the terrace of Gianfranco Fino’s brand-new premises, where every detail has been thought of, down to the hand embroidery on each napkin. Allow the new kid on the block of the local food scene, talented chef Giannico Carruggio, to win you over with the elegance of his well-balanced dishes, designed to match perfectly the warming fullness of the estate wines. Six-course tasting menu from £87pp. Contrada Lella, Manduria, 00 39 099 777 3970,

La Sartoria Sartoria is Italian for tailor’s shop and the idea behind this new concept restaurant in the centre of Manduria is that anything on the menu can be altered to your needs, be it a simple coffee, a ‘sartorial hamburger’ or a ‘tailored barbecue’. There’s a good selection of artisanal beers and local wines and, since it’s open daily from 6.30am, it also makes a great spot for an early breakfast. From £17. Corso XX Settembre 62, Manduria, 00 39 351 667 5827

Masseria del Sale Housed in an 18th-century masseria surrounded by olive groves, this charming restaurant opened its doors eight years ago thanks to Simona Fusco and her partner Andrea Lippi. Chef Alessandro Sammarco has been in the team since the beginning, offering traditional cuisine with a modern twist. For a primitivo-themed meal, start with his colourful risotto al primitivo with dehydrated red berries, goats’ cheese and beetroot. Continue with la bella guancia primitiva, veal cheek stew served with cabbage leaves and a potato croccante and, if you still have room, finish with scrumptious lingotto, a vanilla semifreddo with salted caramel fudge covered in white chocolate and a crunchy topping of almonds and sugar, served as an ice cream on a stick. From £52. Via per Lecce km 2, Manduria, 00 39 349 387 1021,

Stile Primitivo This two-storey address by Campomarino’s little port is a versatile place where you can pop in for anything from speciality coffee to cocktails – their gin-based ones are especially good. Fresh Cucumber, made with a local variety called carosello, is definitely one to sip on the terrace on top. A full menu is on offer too and the food is delicious – a tasty version of spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino, made with fried onions, anchovies, crunchy bread and red peppers that come from co-owner and chef Andrea Cocco’s own balcony, is the unmissable signature dish. From £35. Piazzale Italia 12, Campomarino di Maruggio, 00 39 377 391 1324,

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The producers

Gianfranco Fino The wine maker’s brand-new premises just outside Manduria are an elegant tribute to local varieties. The beating heart is undoubtedly the underground ageing room, where French oak barrels sleep under spectacular tufa vaults fit for a cathedral. Made exclusively with primitivo and negroamaro grapes, the wines have a strong territorial identity. Gianfranco’s award-winning primitivo is, significantly, labelled Es – a tribute to Sigmund Freud’s theories – reflecting the instinct and untamed passions with which this wine is produced. Three-wine tasting with finger food from £26pp. Booking required. Contrada Lella, Manduria, 00 39 099 777 3970,

Masseria Altemura It was at the end of the Nineties that Zonin – one of Italy’s largest family-owned wine companies – made its contribution to the renaissance of wine production in Puglia by acquiring this 270ha estate in the heart of the Salento peninsula and planting new rows of the best indigenous grape varieties. The winery opened in 2012 following a meticulous renovation of the 17th-century traditional Apulian farmhouse – which includes a small votive chapel with original frescoes and a robust watchtower. Choose a regular wine tasting or opt to eat here too, with traditional fare prepared by chef Elisa Bagnardi. Five-wine tasting from £17pp. Traditional lunch with wine pairing, £40pp. Booking required. Strada Provinciale 69, Torre Santa Susanna, 00 39 0831 740485,

Trullo di Pezza The first adventure of sisters Simona and Marika Lacaita (the same duo behind Vinilia and Casamatta restaurant) – a fresh and feminine project that reflects the radiant personalities of the two young women. Set amid a vast estate just outside Manduria, it takes its name from an 1830s farm, beautifully restored and converted into a winery where you can taste the estate’s five labels. Three-wine tasting accompanied by local nibbles from £22pp. Booking required. Contrada Trullo di Pezza, Torricella, 00 39 099 987 2011,

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Where to stay

Gianfranco Fino Sleeping above the ageing room must be the ultimate wine enthusiast’s dream. Gianfranco Fino’s brand-new hospitality venture consists of five swish rooms, three of which overlook the estate vineyards. Gianfranco’s wife Simona, a seasoned traveller, has paid close attention to the smallest details, spoiling her guests with designer toiletries and cashmere blankets. Book into one of the two Spa Suites and you’ll have your own large hammam. Doubles from £173. Contrada Lella, Manduria, 00 39 099 777 3970,

Palazzo Donna Elisabetta Opened this year after meticulous restoration, this 19th-century palazzo in the heart of Manduria makes a central and yet peaceful stay, tucked away on a quiet street surrounded by a garden. Six elegant rooms, impeccably furnished by owner Elisabetta Arnò. The Heritage Suite on the first floor is the pick of the bunch, complete with four-poster, frescoed ceiling and a lovely sitting room with an antique piano. There’s an enchanting pool surrounded by greenery and a spa in the former underground wine cellars is due to open in 2023. Doubles from £170, including breakfast. Via Schiavoni Carissimo 37, Manduria, 00 39 351 607 0593,

Vinilia Wine Resort This early 1900s castle – former summer hideaway of the Schiavoni family – turned top-notch accommodation opened its doors in 2016 with its eclectic mix of Apulian vintage furniture, quirky market finds and contemporary designer pieces. There are 18 rooms and suites, with those in the castle offer sweeping views of the park and vineyards. A head-spinning array of on-site facilities – spa, pool and Michelin-starred restaurant Casamatta – may scupper your sightseeing plans. Doubles from £107, including breakfast. Contrada Scrasciosa, Manduria, 00 39 099 990 8013,

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