Puglia Wine Region Guide
Embracing Tradition and Innovation for a Finer, Soulful Vintage
Last updated: December 20, 2023
Things have come a long way in the so-called heel of the Italian boot. Historically a bulk producer – we’re talking dross beyond dross here – Puglia has redeemed itself in the eyes of the world. Its erstwhile business model depended on ripening truckloads of oversized grapes, shipped for use in distillation, bulk blending, and supermarket table grapes. Then the EU intervened, distributing grants and financial aid designed to encourage farmers to grub up poor-quality vines, leading to a vital reduction in the region’s low-quality base. At the same time, both global and domestic capital has poured into the ancient landscape of Apulia, creating a New World in one of Europe’s oldest wine-producing countries. Puglia is full of shocks and surprises, from the super-fresh Chardonnay wines of Salento to the robust reds of Primitivo.
Winemaking and regional classifications
Puglia has made enormous strides over the past two decades in improving the quality of local wines. However, over half of the region’s output remains uninspiring: blending wine for northern Europe, plonk for the producers of grape concentrate, vermouth, or cheap brandy. These grapes will be handled in the most unceremonious way – mechanical harvesting is very common in the northern half of Puglia. The bunches will then be pressed and fermented in cellars that resemble oil refineries; wine is made as quickly and cheaply as possible in gargantuan stainless steel vats. It is then fined, filtered, and bottled less than six months after the harvest. It has all the soul and complexity of a sweet, fizzy drink. However, the volume of Puglian wine made expressly for discerning drinkers is growing all the time, which has necessitated a significant overhaul in winemaking equipment and techniques. Many of the best white – and red – wines are vinified in small stainless steel tanks; protective handling and minimal clarification yields wines that speak of their origins with a precision that was rare in the 20th century. French barrique also plays an increasing role in the cellars of Puglia, especially for the best Primitivo and Negroamaro blends. Yet, as the fashion swings back in favor of lighter wines and fresher flavors, maturation in concrete, glass demijohns, and amphorae is all the rage with cutting-edge producers.
Geography and terroir
The vineyards of Puglia are found in southeastern Italy, bordered by Campania and Basilicata to the west. But, unlike its neighbors, the topography of this expansive zone is generally quite flat, with relatively little variances in site elevation. This makes vineyard work very straightforward in the summer, yet it provides little respite from the unremitting heat of July and August. Indeed, the vines can bake in one of the driest and hottest climates in Western Europe; alcohol levels of 16% abv are becoming the norm in certain regions. For that reason, the critical mass of premium wines are made in the Salento Peninsula, where proximity to water offers a lifeline for quality-conscious growers. These vineyards, planted on cold clay soils, benefit enormously from the cooling winds that blow off the Adriatic and Ionian seas. Without them, producing fresh and balanced wines would be almost impossible in this torrid climate. Nevertheless, irrigation is an essential part of life here.
The most famous Puglian variety has long been Primitivo – genetically identical to California’s great Zinfandel grape. It reaches an apogee in the vineyards of Primitivo di Manduria DOC, an appellation created in 1974. In the warmest terroirs, this potent grape can reach fiendish alcohol levels; however, thanks to the maritime air that blows off the Ionian sea, growers in Manduria can fashion wines that balance opulence against freshness. Further north, the Gioia del Colle region is another exceptional source of old vine Primitivo, thanks to much-improved viticulture and winemaking. The best reds are concentrated, explosive red fruit, damson, and garrigue concoctions with silky tannins and ripe acidity. Primitivo was traditionally called “Mirr Test” (hard wine) by local farmers in reference to its vigorous nature; overcropped Primitivo is an alcoholic yet empty wine, lacking structure and finesse. Yet old bush vines are a different matter entirely. They yield small quantities of exceptional fruit, often fermented in amphorae by the more avant-garde of Puglia’s winemakers.
There has also been a perceptible increase in interest in Negroamaro, an indigenous red grape variety that was ignored until the late 20th century. Traditionally blended with the obscure Malvasia Nera, the style is renowned for its spicy/savory bouquet and rich palate. Its rising popularity can be explained, in part, by the vine’s robust nature – Negroamaro can cope with prolonged periods of drought and heat. As such occurrences become more common due to climate change, only hardy varieties will survive in Puglia’s arid landscape. Thus, the grape is now associated with over ten different appellations in Puglia, including the Salice, Squinzano, and Copertino DOCs. The best sites enjoy cooling breezes from the Gulf of Taranto and are planted on water-retentive calcareous soils. There is also some pretty nifty Fiano being made in Squinzano, in addition to the amazingly fresh IGT Chardonnay del Salento. However, Puglia’s only indigenous white grape, Verdeca, offers more excitement with its unique aromatic mint, thyme, and citrus profile.
Other rare curiosities include Uva di Troia, made in the Castel del Monte DOC, west of Puglia’s capital Bari. Although exports of this esoteric grape remain tiny, there is much to recommend in Uva di Troia’s black fruit profile and rich concentration. A naturally low-yielding variety, Nero di Troia, like Negroamaro, takes the heat in its stride; clay-limestone soils always produce the most structured and complex Puglian reds. In 2011, a superior designation was unveiled to the public: Castel del Monte Nera di Troia Riserva DOCG. The wines must contain a minimum of 90 percent Uva di Troia, matured in oak for 12 months. Some ambitious bottlings of both native and imported grapes have also been emerging from San Severo, Puglia’s first DOC appellation. Created in 1968, the vineyards are found northwest of Foggia, where Sangiovese and Montepulciano tend to give the best results.
With a proven track record of wallowing in mediocrity, Puglia was long overdue a kick in its metaphorical behind. Thanks to generous EU grants and a surge of investment, the region’s wine industry has been radically transformed. Scores of over-productive vines have been pulled up over the past two decades, while old bush vines, beloved of winemakers, continue to yield the most vivid flavors of the Mediterranean: potent with the scent of damson and thyme. Less famous than Campania, Puglia can often offer better value, particularly in the vineyards of Salento. Historically, the inland parts of Campania, particularly the province of Avellino, set the standard for southern Italy’s leading names. Yet its hegemony has been challenged of late, as Puglian winemakers muscle in on their territory with a growing amount of commendable vino.
However, even Puglia’s most sophisticated wines are rarely shrinking violets, so drinking them alone is not recommended. In southern Italy, the food is vital; you don’t often see locals drink wine except at lunch and dinner. Indeed, Puglian reds, endowed with rich fruit, relatively high alcohol, and tannin, need an equally robust pairing: game, streaks cooked over charcoal, and intensely flavored pasta dishes. The whites are typically ripe and aromatic, with enough substance and acidity to handle tomato-based pasta dishes and barbecued sardines.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for first-time visitors is how refreshing these delectable wines are due to judicious site selection, earlier harvests, and careful winemaking. Puglian whites, especially Verdeca, have high acidity and keep well, and they display pure-fruit qualities because they are unoaked. Thus, they can be drunk young (ideally with seafood) for their intense fruitiness or kept for a few years to develop more aromatic subtlety and depth. Puglia, once Italy’s ugly duckling, is on a high.
Avoid Puglia if you seek culinary pretension and the latest fad in molecular gastronomy. The heart and soul of southern Italian cooking reside in cucina povera (peasant cooking) traditions, where ingredients are fresh and nothing is wasted. Fish sourced from the Adriatic is among the finest in Italy, while strascinati con la mollica is a delicious mixture of pasta, breadcrumbs, and anchovies. Vegetarians, meanwhile, will love the baked casserole tiella di verdure: only the ripest zucchini is used in this medley of rice, cheese, herbs, and vegetables covered in breadcrumbs – a recurring theme in Puglian kitchens!
A Guide to the Gastronomy and Cuisine of Puglia: Read more
Italy’s longest coastline stretch did not stay a secret for long. The Greeks colonized Apulia as far back as the 8th century BC, importing their customs, lawmaking, and the vine! Remnants of this once-thriving civilization can even be seen today in the towns of Sibari and Crotone, dotted across the beautiful Ionian coast. This was Magna Graecia – a beacon of culture and sophistication in the ancient world. Yet the region would be forced to submit to many foreign rulers, including the Romans who conquered Magna Graecia in 202 BC. However, they did not simply occupy the Italian Peninsula unopposed; the forces of Carthage challenged Roman power during the Punic Wars, led by Hannibal. Indeed, the legendary Carthaginian general rampaged through southern Italy, establishing a temporary base in the city of Grumentum.
However, although the Western Empire survived for over four centuries, its collapse in AD 476 did not bode well for the citizens of Puglia. Post-Rome, southern Italy was invaded by the Normans, Swabians, and the Saracens. The Lombards invaded northern Italy in 564. However, their rule did not extend to the arid landscape of Puglia and Calabria. After Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, most provinces north of Lazio submitted to his authority. Yet Il Mezzogiorno (land of the midday sun) became a European outpost for the Muslim Saracens in the early Middle Ages after their conquest of Sicily. They were eventually evicted by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II (976-1025), who restored Christianity as the dominant religion of southern Italy. Winegrowing flourished during this period, organized and managed by the Catholic Church via its monasteries and seminaries.
Nevertheless, this pattern of war and overthrow continued to haunt Puglia until the late 1800s. The Normans, Aragonese, Ottomans, and Bourbons constantly fought over this valuable piece of Italian real estate; Puglia was part of the Kingdom of Naples until the Italian Unification of 1861. Meanwhile, its wine industry remained in the doldrums until the late 1900s, when global investment and EU funds helped Puglia get back on its feet. Rising tourism to this spectacular part of the south coast has also helped enormously, introducing a new generation to the flavors of Primitivo and Negroamaro. So far, so good.
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