Susumaniello

Posted by Keith Wallace

Susumaniello is an ancient red grape native to Apulia in Southern Italy. Traditionally, grape production was limited to the small province of Brindisi, extending into Italy’s boot on the Adriatic coast. Given the tiny area where the grape is grown, it is certainly one of the rarest wine grapes in the world. However, rediscovering this once nearly extinct grape has led to the vinification of excellent wines and slowly increased area under vine.

The word somarello means donkey, and it seems inevitable that this term is from where the name susumaniello derives. The most likely explanation is that the grapes grow with such vigor that the bunches struggle with the weight of the grapes like a donkey overburdened with supplies. Others suggest the grapes were so numerous that a donkey would be overloaded carrying them away after harvest. Less likely suggestions exist, including that the grapes bunch together on the vine in small groups, similar to how groups of donkeys would. (Susu lu somarello means “run donkey,” but I find this fact difficult to reconcile with the grape, though it certainly is fun to say). This natural vigor of the varietal may very well be the cause of both its historical popularity and, ultimately, near extinction.

Traditionally, susumaniello was used as a blending grape. As a black grape with thick skins, it was never popular when vinified alone but was often planted with negro amaro and black Malvasia to add color and structure to a blend of these three. As the economic drive in the mid-twentieth century demanded higher volumes for bulk wine, the vitality of young susumaniello wines was an advantage. Unfortunately for those bulk wine producers, the vines’ energy decreases significantly after about ten seasons, and the yields shrink to a fraction of their former abundance. Either ignorant to or dismissive of the fact that this trait would help make better wine from these more concentrated grapes, the winery owners of the time needed more patience for vines that couldn’t continue to produce with vigor. As the need for quantity continued to outpace the desire for quality, the existing susumaniello vines were abandoned or removed.

By the 1980s, no known source of this grape existed. In 1990, Luigi Rubino prepared to take over his father’s winery. During a tour of the vineyards, he met an older man who had worked the vines for many years. The man indicated a few rows of a grape that he thought was interesting and would be worthy of the new owner to consider. That grape turned out to be susumaniello- a grape about which almost no knowledge remained. The new owners, Luigi and his wife Romina Leopardi, teamed up with their oenologists to rediscover the grape’s properties. The first harvest in 1999 was unsuccessful as they had yet to learn how the grape ripened. The first vintage in bottle was in 2001. This couple became a strong advocate for the rescue and rehabilitation of the susumaniello grape throughout the region. They continue to specialize in susumaniello and have increased the size of their plantings multiple times over the past 20 years.

Because of the work done at Rubino, susumaniello is no longer considered a blending grape and is offered as a single varietal in multiple forms. It can make a high-quality dark blue-hued wine with excellent structure, fresh acidity, and a signature spicy ground black pepper note when aged appropriately and carefully vinified. This wine takes well to oak and can improve with age over six to ten years. Other versions of susumaniello wines range from light-bodied steel-aged reds, rosés, and multiple sparkling wines made in the classical method.

As plantings of susumaniello continue to increase and the wines bring more success to the region, local winemakers are cautiously optimistic that the science will ultimately prove the grape originated in Apulia. The traditional story told that the grape was brought from the Dalmatian coast in Croatia across the Adriatic to Brandisi, like the origin of Primitivo in Italy. As a presumed descendent of uva sogra (a Puglian table grape) and Garganega, once considered Greek, foreign origin was always assumed. Pointing an additional finger eastward, an alternate suggested etymology for the name is having come from Summanus, god of lightning and lord of rain revered in the Balkan states. However, a DNA study sponsored by the Italian government in 2008 determined that susumaniello is a cross of Sangiovese and another undetermined grape. This suggests that Italy, and possibly Apulia, is the grape’s ancestral home- much to the pride of those who have done the work to rescue it from presumed extinction.

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