It’s an odd tribute to a winemaker.
In the bathroom of PerBacco—a gastronomic wine osteria in Bari, Italy—two matching sinks are fashioned from the empty wood cases of a Puglia wine legend.
“Gianfranco Fino showed the world the potential of what a wine from Puglia could be,” enthuses owner Beppe Schino.
He’s not alone in his admiration. Fino’s 14-year rise in the heel of the Italian boot has been meteoric. He founded his winery with a vision for meticulously producing limited-quantity, high-end Primitivo—the southern Italian equivalent of Zinfandel—in the Manduria region.
His flagship Primitivo, called “Es” (the original German term for Freud's concept of the “id”), has consistently earned outstanding scores in Wine Spectator blind tastings. (The 2015, at $90, scored 90 points.) With its linear acidity, complexity and spice, it defies the stereotypical image of massive, inky Primitivo di Manduria—still sometimes shipped north as bulk wine or concentrate to boost other wines.
“I have always sought finesse and elegance, not a Primitivo that’s a quasi-Amarone,” says Fino. “As the French say, it’s balance that makes the difference.”
When I drove up to Fino’s winery at the edge of the town of Sava in early September, I thought I’d mistaken the address. It looked like it could house any local producer selling wine in jugs, not a celebrated wine star.
Painted wood sliding doors open directly off the street into a modest, garage-type space packed with steel tanks. Inside is a series of cramped, fluorescent-lit rooms for making, aging, storing and bottling wine. A pair of workers, finishing the pressing of must with a vintage vertical hydraulic press, shoveled grape pomace into the bed of a rustic, three-wheel Piaggio pickup.
Fino has broken ground in one of his vineyards for a modern, eco-architecture winery, scheduled for completion in 2020, but the fact that he waited this long tells you about his priorities.
Fino puts the vineyards first: His success has been built on painstaking attention to handling Primitivo correctly. Working organically, he farms around 50 acres of bush vines on the hot, dry plain around Manduria, about 10 miles inland from the Ionian Sea.
Here, during the late-August harvest, Fino says, a couple of days means the difference between optimal maturity and jamminess. To preserve freshness, he has large picking crews stock the grapes in cases in refrigerated trucks to protect them from the morning summer sun.
More than half his vineyards are 50 to 90 years old, spread over 15 parcels that produce Es. Densely planted, often without any regard to vine rows, they are worked by hand, horse and roto-tiller. Standing in a site planted so willy-nilly that it looks like a dwarf forest, Fino says, “If I were a Burgundy winery, I would make 15 wines. Every parcel has its own particularity.”
Fino produces only two dry Es wines from his old vineyards. Each vintage, every parcel is vinified separately and spends a year in Burgundy-style oak barrels. Then Fino starts blending. The wine from 14 parcels goes into Es. He chooses one parcel for Es Riserva, released after more than a year of extra bottle aging, with a silk label. “It’s a selection of the parcel that I find to have the most emotion,” he says.
In some years, Fino makes about 150 cases of half-bottles of a third Es wine, the sweet Es più Sole, from late-harvested grapes left to sun-dry on the vines. Fino’s total production of about 2,000 cases is completed by Sé, a Primitivo from younger vineyards, and Jo, a Negroamaro from 40-year-old vines.
Fino was born and reared in Puglia’s seaside town of Taranto, his father a civilian manager of a naval base who expected his son to attend military academy. Fino followed another course in enology and agronomy, working as a consultant focusing on plant diseases that affected vines and olive trees.
In 2004, Fino struck out on his own with 3 acres of Primitivo, from which he made his first 2,600 bottles of Es. His extroverted wife, Simona, quit her law practice to sell the wine, focusing on top restaurants in Italy and across the globe.
“I wanted to make a different wine, not a cliché,” he recalls. “I wanted to make a wine that could compete all over the world.”
For many wine lovers, Es is the paragon of Primitivo di Manduria. Fino, however, quit using the DOC on the label with the 2015 vintage, miffed over a relaxation of appellation rules that allows producers to blend in up to 15 percent of other varieties. For a purist like Fino, it was a betrayal.
“They changed,” Fino insists. “I didn’t change.”