By Frank Cipparone
If this sounds familiar, jump ahead to para- graph two. As recently as the start of this century, a southern Italian region had a dubious reputation for producing massive quantities of bulk wine, most of it used else- where as highly alcoholic juice for blending. Very little was bottled or considered as anything more than unremarkable table wine. Co-ops were the rule, small private wineries the exception. Few gave a thought to what was going on in the vineyards or the cellars.
That was true of Sicily, Calabria and Abruzzo, but also of Puglia. The heel of the boot has always been an agricultural power- house. The flattest region of Italy stretches 215 miles north from the Salento Peninsula to the Gargano highlands, a fertile expanse of mineral-rich soil, sun-drenched Mediterranean climate, and mild sea breezes. In addition to being the country’s largest producer of olive oil, Puglia provides the essential ingredients for southern Italian pantries – wheat, artichokes, peppers, almonds, figs, and of course, grapes.
Puglia’s wine industry, such as it was, experienced the same problem that beset other Mezzogiorno regions, namely transitioning from bulk producer to readily available low cost branded, bottled wine. A three-pronged approach was needed to make Pugliese wines competitive with newcomers such as Australia and South America. First, get the co-ops to scale back mass production and get serious about what was in the bottle. Second, encourage large Italian wineries or foreign investors to buy up vineyards that had been untended for years. Third, and perhaps most important, tighten up the regulations for growing and producing. Puglia didn’t have a DOCG until 2010, and the DOC areas, of which there are now thirty, hadn’t exactly been models of efficiency, enforcement, or quality.
There are basically three wine growing areas: Foggia in the north, Bari/Taranto in the middle, and Brindisi/Lecce to the south. Puglia is known for red wines, the whites less so because many of them are not very exciting, made in small quantities from unspecified mixtures of native varieties and transplants from other parts of Italy. Even those that have been cultivated for a long time don’t usually turn up at wine bars or trattorias beyond Puglia’s borders. Puglia’s recent success rests on its three primary red grapes.
To the north, particularly around Castel dl Monte, reliable grapes more associated with other parts of Italy such as Aglianico, Montepulciano and Sangiovese were common. The last 20 years have seen economic growth and renewed interest in local varieties due to the revitalization of Uva di Troia. Its rise from obscurity is a bonus for wine drinkers, another example of how a single grape can change the perception of an area. A well- made Uva di Troia won’t blow your mind. What it gives you is a refined balance of dryness, medium body and red fruit in contrast to the rustic, brawny, high alcohol reds made in other parts of Puglia.
The central and southern plains rely on two grapes that have given Puglia its identity as a source of richly flavored and well- priced wines. Primitivo has led the way, probably because it has been shown to be identical to California’s Zinfandel, which generations of Americans know and love. Negro Amaro is more widely planted and is found in several DOCs from Brindisi to the Gulf of Taranto, often blended with small amounts of Malvasia Nera. Together they account for around 70,000 acres of vineyards.
The best Primitivo is bold and boozy with a lush texture and thickly concentrated flavors of strawberry, red raspberry and plums. Its soft tannins and give and take of sweet-savory make it easy to drink. Negro Amaro, as its name indicates, is darker, earthier, more firmly packed, slightly more aromatic, and not as polished as Primitivo.
Since there’s no better way to learn what these wines are about than drinking them, here are some worth uncorking:
• Cantine Sociale Cooperativo Riserva, Copertino DOC – If you’ve never had Negro Amaro this can be your introduction, a food friendly wine that’s been a regular at my table for years.
• Cosimo Taurino “Notarpanaro,” Puglia IGT – The gold standard of Negro Amaro that can age for ten years in bottle. Another old friend.
• Francisco Candido “Cappello di Prete,” Salento IGT – The essential Salento Negro Amaro, southern Italy at its no-frills best.
• Le Corte Negro Amaro, Salentino DOC – All the traditional hallmarks of the grape but adds figs, spice and tobacco leaves for a full-bodied mixture of flavor and aroma.
• Leone di Castris “Donna Lisa,” Salice Salentino DOC – An intensely flavored and elegant wine that manages to stay true to its roots.
• Botromagno Primitivo, Gravina IGT – Classic Puglia – rough and ready, spicy, herbal, mildly tannic on the finish.
• Cantina Polvinera “Calx,” Puglia IGT – Atypical, an organically made every day Primitivo that is light, juicy, and refreshing.
• Savese “Terrarossa,” Primitivo di Manduria DOCG – A lot going on here, from loamy mushroom aromas to the fully concentrated finish.
• Schola Sarmenti “Cubardi,” Salento IGT – Deliciously alluring mix of Mediterranean fruits, spices, and exotic herbs.
• Leone di Castris “Villa Santera” Primitivo di Manduria DOCG – The “liquorosso” style captures what a mildly passito wine should be.
• D’Alfonso del Sordo “Casteldrione,” Puglia” IGT – This low-key Uva di Troia is a study in balance that could be the template for doing it right.
• Anguili Nero di Troia, Puglia IGT – A new take on an old grape that may not be representative but has a lot to offer.