Sunday, July 10, 2016

Overview of Puglia Wine Region

(May 2016) Driving from the hills of Campania to the flat dry plains of Puglia illustrated the strong difference between these two famous wine regions of Southern Italy.  However, even though they are very different in landscape and grape varietals, it only took us two hours to drive from Benevento to Alberobello, the ancient and charming town we stayed in for our two days in Puglia.  Alberobello is a Unesco World Heritage site because of its unusual “trulli” architecture – tiny conical shaped houses made of stone.

Truilli Architecture in Alberobello, Puglia

The Unique Beauty of Puglia’s Landscape and Climate

Despite its relatively flat landscape, Puglia has other aspects that make it beautiful.  A major one is the thousands of century old olive trees that dot the landscape, along with red poppies, large yellow hay bales, and flowering cactus. Puglia is also blessed with 800 kilometers of seaside, and we could usually see the blue shining Adriatic in the distance.  Just short distances across the water are Croatia, Greece, and Albania – the source of two of Puglia’s signature red grapes.

Beautiful Landscape of Puglia

The major city is Bari, which I have visited previously (see post), but this time we stayed to the south of Bari, closer to the most famous wine regions. The soil of Puglia is a mixture of sand, limestone (which you can easily see in the fields), and red volcanic mix. The climate is hot and sunny, and Puglia has long been known as Italy’s breadbasket because it produces much of the wheat, olive oil, and grapes. Puglia is also the birthplace of the delicious soft cheese called "Burrata".

Famous Burrata Cheese of Puglia

Signature Grapes of Puglia

Due to Puglia’s hot and sunny climate, it is primarily known for red wine, but they also produce delicious roses and a few good whites, mainly from the Verdeca grape.  Puglia’s three signature red grapes are:

1) Primitivo – a clone of zinfandel with the same jammy, berry, peppery notes, but often with a more earthy and rustic quality. Aged in both French and American oak. Alcohol levels are generally around 14.5%, but can get up as high a 18%, we were told.  The best wines are often from the region of Manduria, which is considered to be the home of Primitive in Italy. Primitivo is said to have came to Puglia from Croatia.

2) Negroamaro – means “black bitter,” and has markers of wild cherry, tobacco, and herbs.  The grape has very high tannins, and a naturally high acid. Color ranges from dark ruby to opaque black. It is often blended, because on its own it can taste harsh and bitter. Negroamaro tolerates heat and drought well.  It is considered to produce one of the healthiest red wines, because it has high levels of resveratrol.  The best wines are often from the region of Salice Salentino near the ancient city of Lecce.

3) Nero de Troia – meaning “Black of Troy”, this is an ancient grape that is reputed to have come to Puglia from Homer’s city of Troy, which is located in present day Albania just across the Adriatic. This is one of my favorite varietals in Puglia, because it often produces more elegant red wines with black plum, violets and earth. It has softer tannins, but can be astringent on the palate.  For this reason it is often blended, but we found some delightful versions that were 100% Nero de Troia, such as Lui produced by Cantina Albea Winery in the town of Alberobello.

We found rose wines produced from all three of the signature red grapes described above, and I thought the Negroamaro roses were quite good because they had crisp acids.  Bombino Nero is another local grape that is often used for rose wine.  It is fruity and approachable, and therefore quite good for this purpose, though it is possible to find 100% red versions as well as red blends of Bombino Nero.  In terms of white, the Verdeca grape produces some of the best we tasted. They also produce wines from Fiano and Bianco d’ Alessano in Puglia – both of which are often blended with Verdeca.

Some Wines from Puglia

Puglia’s Ancient Trellis System and DOCGs

One of the most impressive features of Puglia was the many ancient vineyards of head-pruned vines.  They sprawled across the landscape with black octopus tentacles.  In Southern Italy, they call this type of trellis system “alberello”, which means “small tree.”  They also have newer vineyards on VSP with black irrigation drip hoses.  However, if the vineyard is designated for DOC or DOCG (DOP) wines, then they must obtain permission to water.

Poster of Old Vine Zinfandel in Puglia

Puglia currently has 4 DOCGs.  They are:

  1. Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale – focusing on sweet wines made from the Primitivo grape in the Manduria region
  2. Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Reserva – focusing on the Nero di Troia grape
  3. Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva – also focusing on the Nero di  Troia grape, but as a blend
  4. Castel del Monte Bombino Nero – focusing on the Bombino Nero grape

We were surprised to find there are currently no DOCGs for Negroamaro or dry Primitivo, but hopefully these will come in the future.

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