Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, is hot, mostly flat, and sun drenched. Italy’s third largest wine producing region after the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, Puglia accounts for more wine even than Sicily. This is, basically, a recipe for low-quality bulk wine. Indeed, in the past, Puglia’s been an ideal place for tanker trucks to load up with large amounts of ripe high alcohol red wine to be shipped north–often to France–for blending with wines that could use a little help.
Yet, I was continually surprised during my recent visit to Salento in southern Puglia. I didn’t see a cloud in the gorgeous azure sky for a full week. And standing in the sun, it’s definitely hot. But with an uncanny consistency, each morning and evening brought wonderfully cooling breezes from the nearby Adriatic and Ionian seas. The Salento zone, a tongue-like projection into the sea that’s only 18 miles wide, is the real entre deux mers.
Idiosyncrasies of the climate along with forward thinking producers who know how to take advantage of the indigenous local grapes explain why Puglia’s current wines continue to contradict the tanker truck image.
Crisp, Low-Alcohol Whites
Although best known for the rich, ripe reds, Puglia’s higher locales in the i trulli area (a UNESCO-designated world heritage site because of its unique round stone houses with conical roofs) around Locorotondo make bracing, low alcohol whites from indigenous and little-known grapes, such as Verdeca or Fiano Minutolo. One taste of Verdeca from Leone de Castris will make you a believer. The engaging Fiano Minutolo has a Muscat-like profile that distinguishes it from the better-known Fiano of Avellino in Campania. Of course, some producers are experimenting with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s the autochthonous whites that are likely to succeed over the long haul. Dottore Donato Lazzari, the General Director of Agricole Vallone, one of the region’s lending producers, says, “Our whites will one day be as well-known as our reds.” He has the requisite perspective, having been with Vallone for 50 harvests. After tasting scores of Pugliese whites, I believe him.
The Big Three Reds
The three major red varieties, two of which are exclusive to Puglia and are grown nowhere else, even within Italy, are Nero di Troia, Negroamaro and Primitivo. The origins of the first two are obscure. It’s appealing to think that Nero di Troia was, like so many other southern Italy varieties, transported from Greece, in this case, Troy. But the evidence for that is weak and there is a place in Puglia called Troia where it may have originated.
No one to whom I spoke knew the precise birthplace of Negroamaro (literally, black and bitter), but all agreed it was an ancient grape known in pre-Roman times.
In contrast, most producers agreed that Primitivo originated in Croatia, where currently there are two other varieties that are closely related to it, according to Charles Scicolone, a food and wine consultant based in New York and one of the foremost American authorities on wines from Puglia. According to that scenario, Primitivo was transported to Puglia via the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Scicolone notes that the newest theory, though not held by many, is that Primitivo actually originated in Puglia. Whatever its origins, it migrated to California in the 19th century. Carole Meredith, using DNA mapping at the University of California, Davis in 1994, found Primitivo to be identical to Zinfandel.
Nero di Troia
Of the three, Nero di Troia seems the most out of place. Many producers abandoned it in the past because it naturally produces low alcohol (13%) wine, not a desirable trait when the market wants bulk wine to beef up thinner ones. It’s only been since the mid 1990s that Nero di Troia has been used to make a monovarietal wine. Before then, it was used in blends to reduce alcohol and lower total acidity. There’s still not a lot planted, only about 5,000 acres, all in the north of Puglia, but it’s making a justifiable renaissance and may well turn out to be the star grape from the entire region. It’s the primary grape of the Castel del Monte DOC and was undoubtedly responsible for that DOC’s elevation to DOCG, Puglia’s first for dry wine, commencing with the 2011 vintage. Betty Mezzina, an Italian authority on Nero di Troia, says, “The challenge is to control the tannins.” When you taste Nero di Troia made by superb producers, such as Torrevento or Rasciatano, blind, you’d swear it’s a northern grape because of the wine’s firm structure and elegance. Clearly these producers have controlled the tannins.
Although confined primarily to the Salento zone, Negroamaro, with over 40,000 acres, is Puglia’s most widely planted grape. It became known in the 1970s when wine made from it began to win prizes at international competitions. Its popularity received a big boost in the early 1990s when Robert Parker, Jr., the noted critic, praised it. Still, it’s barely known as a quality wine in the United States.
“Harmonious and complete,” is how Duccio Armenio, a Negroamaro expert, describes the wine. It has “color, alcohol, acidity and as many polyphenols as Barolo,” he continues. It can be used as a monovarietal or blended, either with other traditional grapes, such as Montepulciano, Malvasia Nero or Susumaniello, or with international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Negroamaro makes a robust red that’s not tannic or astringent even when young and has an appealingly bitter finish recalling black cherries, which means it’s a complete contrast to over-ripe New World wines that finish sweet. Despite Puglia’s heat and Negroamaro’s ripeness, the wines have a surprising and appealing freshness and vivacity.
After tasting hundreds of examples of Negroamaro during my recent trip (some as monovarietals and some as blends), I concluded that it has the possibility of challenging Nero di Troia as the region’s top wine, if for no other reason than that there are far more producers making top-notch renditions of it.
The stylistic range of Negroamaro is vast because experimentation is rampant and not limited to different blends. Some producers employ an appassimento technique–drying the grapes before fermentation–which increases the richness of the wine and gives it an Amarone-like character. And of course, there’s always the variable of producers using French barriques for aging.
Primitivo, which means first-born, takes its name from its precocious ripening. The first grape in the area to be harvested, usually by the end of August, it’s a farmer’s dream because it’s picked before poor weather could damage the crop and often gives a second crop from which a rosato is made. It’s a grape that’s naturally high in sugar and extract and has easy-to-polymerize polyphenols, which translates into a soft and fruity wine with high alcohol (up to 18 or 19%) that sometimes has residual sugar.
Primitivo can make at least two styles of wine. In general, wines from the Primitivo di Manduria DOC are the richest and ripest, according to Tom Maresca, noted American authority on Italian wines. While they have their partisans, they are clearly not for everyone, with some consumers finding them “over the top” and too exuberant. Ones from the Gioia del Colle DOC show a touch more restraint, but make no mistake: They are still intense wines and not for the faint of heart. It’s only in comparison to those from Manduria that they could be considered “restrained,” according to Maresca.
Indeed, the producer’s individual style and winemaking decisions can trump any geographic character. For example, both Fatalone and Polvanera bottle a Primitivo from the Gioia del Colle DOC, yet the former’s finishes with a subtle and attractive bitterness while the latter’s is far bigger and more boisterous with apparent residual sugar. In addition, many producers eschew the DOCs, opting to use the more flexible IGT (or now, IGP) umbrella, making generalizations impossible.
The challenge for producers, according to Maresca, is to retard Primitivo’s ripening to make a wine with lower alcohol and residual sugar without eviscerating its briary character. I would add that producers should label the wines in a way that informs the consumer what style is in the bottle.
Regular WRO readers know I’m no fan of rosés, often preferring to chill a light red wine instead. But after tasting rosato from Negroamaro, I’ve been converted. They have the structure of a red wine and are a superb choice for seafood and grilled vegetables, which happens to be the basis of Pugliese cuisine. Indeed, rosato of Negroamaro became popular precisely because the region historically made little white wine and the populace needed a lighter wine for their cuisine.
Worth a Search
Below is a list of some recommended producers with their importers in parenthesis. Unfortunately, some of Puglia’s best producers, such as Candido, do not have representation in the US.
Cantine Due Palme (Wine 4 All)
Castello Monaci (Frederick Wildman)
Fatalone (Bon Vivant)
Leone de Castris (Winebow)
Li Veli (Dalla Terra Direct)
Rasciatano (Wine 4 All)
Tenute Rubino (Panebianco in New York and Vinity Wine in California)
Torrevento (soon via Torrevento USA, according to Marina Thompson of Thompson International Marketing, a marketing consultant)
Vallone (Banville & Jones)
June 26, 2012