This combination of Mediterranean heat, beach life, and seafood calls for wines other than the punchy reds that Puglia is known for, like Primitivo di Manduria or Salice Salentino. However, the heat and flat land make it difficult to cultivate white grape varieties. Except for the area around Castel del Monte—hillier, higher in elevation, and thus a bit cooler—much of Puglia is adapted to varieties like primitivo, negroamaro, and malvasia nera.The solution? Rosato, of course.

Italy’s first rosato

In 1943, a bright spot lit up the dark days of World War II, when the war campaign was just beginning on Italian soil: it was the same year that launched Italian rosato.

Original Five Roses, 1943. © Leone de Castris

Original Five Roses, 1943. © Leone de Castris

The American General Charles Poletti—previously governor of New York (the first Italian-American to serve as governor) and appointed U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer in Italy for his knowledge of Italian language and local culture—landed in Salento. In this southern territory of Puglia in Salice Salento, the Leone de Castris family has been making wine since 1665, when it was founded by the Spanish Duke Oronzo, Earl of Lemos. In 1943, Piero was the owner of the winery (and holder of many other titles, besides, such as President of the Farmer’s Union of Lecce, Major of Salice Salento, and more). He gave Charles Poletti a bottle of rosato, called Cinque Rose, or “five roses” after the many generations of their family that had had exactly five children.

Five Roses was the first rosato wine in Italy to be bottled and exported—arriving on American soil in mismatched beer bottles.The general loved it. He wanted to take the rosato back to the United States—cases of it. Unfortunately, bottles were scarce at the time, and shipping bottles from industrial northern Italy was out of the question; Italy was yet torn in two by the war. The general and the winemaker put their heads together. They decided that the myriad empty beer bottles left around by American soldiers would serve their purpose. But before taking the rosato to the United States, Poletti had one more request for Don Piero: name the wine Five Roses. Don Piero, an entrepreneurial spirit, understood that this would help exports and happily agreed to.

Leone de Castris and Five Roses

Today, the Leone de Castris Winery continues to make its now-legendary Five Roses. It is made with 90% negroamaro and 10% malvasia nera, two local grapes. The wine is crystalline cherry-red in color, with fruity aromas of cherry, strawberry, and raspberry on the nose. In the mouth its silky tannins are well-balanced with a pleasant acidity. It is smooth and persistent.

In addition to their famous rosato, Leone de Castris makes over thirty other labels, such as their Salice Salentino DOC, Locorotondo DOC, a line of varietal wines made from native grapes like primitivo, negroamaro, malvasia, and aleatico, sparkling and Metodo Classico wines, and many more.

five-roses

Visit Puglia: the Wine Museum and Villa Donna Lisa

Sometimes, by tracing the history of a single family, you can understand the history of something much bigger. Such is the case with Leone de Castris. Not only have they cultivated land in Salento for four centuries, but they hold the distinction of bottling Puglia’s first wine in 1925 and, as we have seen, bottling and exporting Italy’s first rosato.

Wine Museum “Piero e Salvatore Leone de Castris.” © Leone de CastrisWine Museum “Piero e Salvatore Leone de Castris.” © Leone de Castris

Today, the Wine Museum “Piero and Salvatore Leone de Castris,” named after the winery’s two pioneers, is open to the public. It offers visitors a fascinating view of the historical-cultural path that the Leone de Castris family followed alongside Puglia’s wine history. Browse through vintage photos, old bottles, documents, and antique machinery. You can even see the earliest bottled wine of Puglia, from 1925—a dessert wine Moscatello.

If you plan on visiting Puglia, we would be amiss not to mention the winery’s recently-renovated Villa Donna Lisa. The winery’s high-end restaurant and hotel, it is located at an excellent point for exploring the rest of the Salento. It is nearby Lecce, often called the Florence of the South, close to many beautiful beaches spread along the Ionian coast, and in the midst of the characteristic towns and hamlets scattered throughout the region. The Villa itself is lovely, located within a park and an ancestral home, offering a warm welcome in the sincere manner that comes so naturally to southern Italy and the people who live here.

Villa Donna Lisa. © Leone de CastrisVilla Donna Lisa. © Leone de Castris