The beginning of Italian rosé can be traced back to a single bottle in Puglia and an American WWII general.
The word “rosé” usually brings to mind a French wine, often from Provence. But say “rosato,” and Italy will be summoned. Though France has long held the top rosé spot in consumer tastes, Italy offers excellent options all up and down the boot. The beginning of Italian rosato wine can be traced back to Puglia, to a single bottle of Leone de Castris Five Roses and an American WWII general.
First: what is rosato wine?
Whether you call it French rosé, Italian – rosato, Spanish – rosado, or the admittedly less romantic pink wine of the USA, the word refers to a specific winemaking style. Red grape skins are left in contact with the fermenting grape juice for a brief amount of time, bleeding their color into the juice before being removed. On the other hand white wine is made without skin contact and red wine is made with protracted skin contact—up to weeks at a time. Slight variations in length of skin contact, grapes varieties, and winemaking techniques can result in many beautiful shades of pink and nuances of aroma.
Rosato in Puglia
When made in Italy, rosato is usually dry. All Italian regions make rosato, though it is the least consumed and produced in central Italy, specifically Lazio and Umbria. One of the regions in which rosato excels, on the other hand, is Puglia.
The heel of Italy’s boot, Puglia is mostly flat with arid land dotted with olive trees, vineyards, and towns built of white stone. Long and thin, the region is one extended coastline, its sands spilling into the crystal clear Ionic and Adriatic Seas. The food here is plentiful, based on a bounty of local fresh fruits and vegetables and an abundance of Mediterranean fish and seafood. For much of the year the weather is hot and sunny, inviting you to sit outside on a terrace with a glass of wine in hand.
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.
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.
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.
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.