Brindisi airport is a dramatically situated entrée to Puglia, the heel of Italy. Airplanes descend over the Adriatic, offering tantalizing glimpses of the turquoise sea and sandy beaches, before flying over a beachhead and making a grand landing on a small air-strip. Grand though is not a description that would apply only to Puglia’s coastline. Puglia (Apulia in its Roman origins and now in English) is well-known for its scale in wine and food production. In addition to a significant amount of wine, most of Italy’s pasta and olive oil are produced here.
From 10,000 feet above sea-level it’s easy to generalize about the region: it’s beautiful, flat, agrarian, sun-drenched, and torrid. The generalizations about Apulian wine though, flow thicker than the wine itself; and Apulia is almost a prisoner of these generalizations. Here’s a shortlist: Apulia is a bulk wine region, producing very full-bodied and high-alcohol red and rosé wines, many of which are used to beef-up lighter northern wines. This is indeed one role that Apulia has played in the past.
One group of wineries though is trying to break from the past and
escape the paint-brush of these generalizations. This is the ‘Puglia Best Wine Consortium’ – a group of seven wineries that have voluntarily come together to promote their wines. They recently hosted the second edition of ‘Apulia Wine Identity’ – an event that gathers wine writers and professionals from around the world for a one-week immersion into Apulian wine and cuisine. Apart from the seven consortium members, nineteen other wineries from the region participated in the event.
Apulia is nearly 400 kilometers long, and vineyards are scattered along its entire length. As it would be expected of a region of this size, Apulia is not one homogenous region. Differences in terrain, altitude, and situation of vineyards along Apulia’s length lead to important differences in the wines produced. Take for example the Primitivo grape, one of Apulia’s signature grape varieties. Primitivo, now scientifically established to be the same as Zinfandel, gives dramatically different wines depending on where it is grown. In the coastal plains of Manduria, Primitivo-based wines are very full-bodied, high in alcohol and with noticeable residual sugar. On the palate this plays out as a very sweet entry and a sweet finish (and I’m referring here to ‘dry’ light wines). On the other hand, the vineyards of Gioia del Colle are located on a limestone plateau at 350-500 meters above sea level and benefit from the coolness that comes with elevation. As a result, Primitivo-based wines from Gioia del Colle are lower in alcohol (often coming in at around 13.5% abv) and have noticeably lower residual sugar than the wines from Manduria. From the critics’ standpoint, Gioia del Colle’s relatively restrained Primitivos are the best in Apulia. However, the reality is that most consumers would prefer the juicier, sweeter and fuller Primitivos from Manduria, which is one reason for the success of the Primitivo di Manduria DOC. The Salento peninsula in the south, sandwiched by the Ionian and Adriatic seas, gives Primitivo wines that fall somewhere between the Manduria and Gioia del Colle styles.
The Salento peninsula is where I spent most of my time, based in the magnificent city of Lecce and visiting wineries as part of a territorial tour. This is an area where Negroamaro rules, and is often used to make single-varietal wines. It is also blended with Primitivo, which is used to soften the harder Negroamaro tannins. Negroamaro tends to be more tannic and have higher acidity than Primitivo. As against Primitivo’s sweetish red-fruit character, Negroamaro wines then to be more blackberries scented and are distinctly savoury. Negroamaro is rarely grown outside Puglia and is almost unheard of outside of Italy. Both Primitivo and Negroamaro are also used extensively for making Rosé wines, which are a staple of Puglia and are also consumed extensively around Italy. Apulian Rosé wines tend to be dark-coloured, very full-bodied and low in acidity. This makes them more food wines rather than simpler summer guzzlers.
In the pecking order of personal preference, I would put Apulian whites higher than the Rosé wines. Given that Apulia is basically considered a region for red and rosé wines, the whites are almost unheralded and under-appreciated. However, it is precisely among the whites that I found a few surprises. There were excellent wines made from Verdecca and Fiano Minutolo (whose aromas are very reminiscent of Muscat), and Falanghina. Coming in at around 12.5%-13.5% abv, they had good refreshing acidity and made excellent aperitifs.
Apulian wines sometimes get a bad rap for high alcohol. Outliers aside, I found that most wines I tasted carried their alcohol very well. Even some of the wines that were nominally very high in alcohol (at over 15-16% abv) felt seamless. This is a feat that few other wine regions can pull off. Part of the reason may be that both Negroamaro and Primitivo have abundant fruit and good tannic structure to support the wines. The tannins are aggressive enough in both Primitivo and Negroamaro that the wines do benefit from at least 3 years of ageing. However, these are still wines for relatively early drinking (within 5-7 years). Once the tannins drop off, the older wines tend to feel a little cloyingly sweet, which is probably a result of the inherently lower acidity, higher alcohol and some residual sugar in the region’s wines.
A number of other grape varieties are grown in the region. Among the red wine grapes, Nero di Troia is important and grown extensively. Then there are grape varieties that play a supporting role, like Aleatico and Malvasia Nera among the native varieties; and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot among the international varieties. The smallest plantations are of a native red wine grape called Susumaniello, which had almost disappeared from the region but is being resurrected with very good results by a few wineries, notably Tenute Rubino. Use of Bombino is common for white wines, while some wineries also plant international varieties – particularly Chardonnay.
From the point of view of the Indian market, I give Primitivo di Manduria the best shot of success. Not only will the wines appeal to the Indian tastes, I think the catchy and easy to pronounce name helps. I know this sounds inane, but it also happens to be the reality of a newly emerging wine market. Soft, full-bodied, fruity and high-alcohol wines such as Amarone della Valpolicella have already found fans in India. I think luscious Primitivo di Manduria would appeal to some of those palates, at a much more approachable price points than Amarone. Speaking of commercial matters, the one thing that did surprise me are the prices. Sure, wineries of the ‘Puglia Best Wine Consortium’ are some of the best in the region and they offer high quality wines. However, in thinking about the global wine market, I do think that these wines are priced about 30-40% too high (I’m referring to ex-cellar export prices).
During the program, I had the chance to visit several wineries in the Salento area – experiencing not just the wine, but also the food of the region. A short report on those visits is available in a separate article at this link. Apulia Wine identity 2012 was hosted in the ancient city of Lecce, which is a perfect backdrop for experiencing the wines of the region. The venue of some of the talk-shows was an old Roman amphitheatre, which can prompt admiring sighs of ‘Only in Italy’. It is here that Mr. Luigi Rubino, President of the ‘Puglia Best Wine Consortium’, made the point about Apulia’s unique identity related to Negroamaro, Nero di Troia and Primitivo. Apulia does have a unique identity, working as it does with grapes that are rarely found outside of Puglia (with the exception of Primitivo, which has also made a home in California as Zinfandel). At the same time Apulia is a also a region that is emerging from decades of association with bulk wine, and its wineries will face severe competition from other wine regions as they seek to move up the value chain. How much success they have will depend in the end on how sharply they define their identity, and how they communicate that message to global wine consumers.
We tasted through 250 wines during the program. Some of my favourites among the reds were:
Academia dei Racemi (Vigna del Feudo 2008)
Valle dell’Asso (Piromáfo 2007)
Agricole Vallone (Vigna Castello 2009)
Tenute Rubino (Visellio 2010)
Cantine due Palme (Selvarossa 2008)
Tenute Mater Domini (Marangi 2010 and Casili 2008)
Tenute Girolamo (Monte Tre Carlini 2009 and Conte Giangirolamo 2009)
Tenute Chiaromonte (Muro Sant’angelo Barbatto 2008)
Polvanera (Polvanera 16 2009)
Pietraventosa (Allegoria 2008)
Masseria li Veli (Masseria li Veli 2008)
Schola Sarmenti (Corimei 2010, a superb late-harvest sweet Primitivo)
Also notable for their intensity and sheer weight were the wines from Mille Una, whose Tretarante 2008 and Capitolo Laureto 2008 tipped the scales at mammoth 18.8% and 19.3% alcohol by volume respectively. Whether you like them or not depends on your personal taste (or shall I say appetite?), but they surely are unique for unfortified ‘light’ wines.