Just back from an eye-opening visit to one of Italy’s southern-most wine regions: Puglia. It’s that little space that encompasses the entire boot heel of the country. Its peninsular shape offers coastal exposure all along its eastern and western borders. Compared to many of Italy’s mountainous regions, Puglia is characterized by a broad rolling landscape with arid terrain punctuated by prickly-pear cacti and miles and miles of olive groves. (It’s worth noting that the region is responsible for almost half of the country’s olive production.) Here, marine breezes perpetually sweep across the 30-mile width of the region from the Ionian Sea to the West and the Adriatic Sea to the East. The warm Mediterranean sun and the sandy, calcareous soils make Puglia a particularly unique environment for grape growing.
Yet, historically, Puglia has often been overlooked for its wines, taking backseat to northern cousins such as Piedmont, Tuscany, and the Veneto. And perhaps not undeservedly so…considering much of its past has been marred by mass production of bulk wine often used as a base for vermouth or distillate. In fact, only about 2 percent of the region’s wines were released at DOC (P) level throughout the latter part of the 21st Century. But in the past 20 years, things have changed in Puglia. Wine quality has been on the rise thanks to intentional pivots in vineyard management and progressive vinification methods. As of 2011, the region now has more than two dozen DOCs and 4 DOCGs, a clear indicating factor that the region is definitely on its way to garnering a stronger international standing.
I was in the company of Cantine San Marzano who hosted myself and a couple of other journalists for crash course in the Pugliese culture. It was a week of meandering through the white-washed walls of the Medieval cities like Ostuni along the Adriatic Sea, dipping our feet in the long sandy beaches bordering clear, turquoise waters, exploring the cobble-stoned pathways of the fairytale-esque coned-roof huts, or trulli, of Alberobello, and savoring the bounty of the fresh produce, meats, and cheeses abundantly produced within the area. My senses are still swirling with notes of peppery olive oils, creamy burratas and salata, salami and capocollo,
Admittedly, since this was a trip hosted by a single producer, I don’t feel comfortable speaking to a whole range of wines for the region, although we did make an effort to taste as much as we could from other producers to add to the overall perspective. But at the same time, the experience that Cantine San Marzano provided drew a beautiful picture of a beautiful region balancing nimbly on the line between traditional heritage and progressive modernity; a characterization that was evident in the culture, the food, and the wine. While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on Puglia, there were a few lingering takeaways that have made an impression on me.
Primitivo Country: Cantine San Marzano began in the early 1960s in the village of San Marzano as a collection of 19 winemakers who saw true promise in the wine potential for the region. At the time, the Primitivo di Manduria DOC (P) did not exist, but it’s clear that the Primitivo had taken a stronghold in the region. A native grape of Croatia, Primitivo, which bares an identical genetic makeup to Zinfandel, is actually the third most widely-planted grape in the region. But as evidenced by the Cantine San Marzano range of single-variety releases from the light and fruity Il Pumo to the rich and brawny Sessentanni and Anniversario 62, this grape exudes a prowess that puts Puglia on a solid standing.
Notes of dark baked blackberries, ripe fig, and macerated blueberries are common characteristics of Primitivo wines, balanced by parched earth and dried leather. It’s notably an early-ripening grape whose ripe characters are a result of its long growing period, which allows for rich sugars to develop. Often times producers, including Cantine San Marzano, will allow grapes to dry slightly on the vine before harvesting, continuing with an apassimento-style drying process a week or two following harvest to further develop flavor concentration before fermentation. (Note: This is done for both sweet and dry styles of wine.) The resulting wines are often luscious and robust with weighty alcohol levels anywhere between 14.5 and 16.5 percent.
The Takeaway: Pay attention to Puglia Primitivo, particularly from further south on the peninsula in the Primitivo di Manduria DOC (P) where producers across the board have paid more attention to lower yields and higher quality fruit.
Say Yes To Salice Salentino: While I admit I was enchanted with the broad range of depth, structure, and age-abilty that Primitivo can offer in Puglia, I found a particular soft spot for Negroamaro. This profoundly deep red grape earns its name, “black bitter,” for its rich color and concentrated dark fruit characters, but also from the particular spicy notes--both herbaceous and baking-related--that come alive in the wine. It is Negroamaro that leads the region in overall plantings and it is Negroamaro that dominates the red blends of the Salice Salentino DOC (P), along with secondary blending varieties Malvasia Nero and Aleatico. Produced in the commune of Salice Salentino and in other nearby areas between the provinces of Brindisi and Lecce where are soils are diverse, with clay-limestone predominating, these wines tend to reveal richness and balance altogether.
The Takeaway: The beauty is in the relatively mild tannins and medium acidity, which makes the wines approachable in their youth and a welcome pairing to a causal pizza or pasta dinner.
Winning White Wines: Just about anywhere you read anything about Puglia, the predominant wine focus is inevitably on red varieties and styles. While there’s nothing wrong with that, white wine styles are beginning to have their place. Chardonnay has been one of the more widely planted varieties just to give producers something marketably “safe” to use to make white wine. But producers like Cantine San Marzano have spent more time trying to revive many of the white varieties that are native to the region including Verdeca, Fiano Minulto (more commonly referred to locally as simply Minuloto), Passulara, and Moscatello Selvatico, or “wild moscatel.”
At the Edda vineyard in San Marzano, which has been in the winery’s managing director, Mauro DiMaggio’s family for generations, these are the varieties given the most focus in hopes of bringing strength in the white wine category to the region. From the vineyard comes EDDA, a white wine blend that began with a backbone of Chardonnay with its first vintage in 2014, but has steadily increased to showcase the regional varieties with each progressing vintage. Ripe and generous in citrus and floral aromas, the current 2017 release of this wine reveals vibrancy and freshness that deepens with roundness and richness through the 2016 and 2015 vintages, a quality most likely resulting from the short two-week apassimiento process the grapes undergo before fermentation. This is a wine that retains youthfulness that soon reveals an old soul at its core.
The Takeaway: White wines from native grapes are worth waiting for in the coming years.
In Conclusion: There’s still much to be discovered about the region of Puglia. The short week with my generous hosts afforded only the slightest glimpse into the depth of what this arid southern region has to reveal. But it was enough of a taste to pique my interests in seeking out more wines from Puglia, and hoping they find their way in more abundance to the U.S. market.