Italy is often described as shaped like a boot, and if that’s true then the coastal region and peninsula of Puglia (or “Apulia”, and pronounced “poo-lya”) would be considered the heel. When it comes to Agriculture and Viticulture, though, it is anything but.
Puglia, though one of the hottest and sunniest wine regions of Italy, also boasts the most miles of coastline in Italy. It is always bordered on at least one side by the Adriatic or Ionian Seas, and the cooling effects of these coasts help moderate the heat that would otherwise make wine-making a very difficult proposition. In reality, Puglia is one of the most fertile lands for growing just about anything, but it is olives and grapes that make up the bulk of their exports. In fact, nearly half the olive oil produced in Italy comes from Puglia.
The region can be split into two halves, culturally and wine-wise. Most of the land north of the Salento Peninsula, starting at the towns of Brindisi and Taranto, is hillier than the flats of the peninsula. The southern peninsula also tends to identify more with its Greco-Roman history than the northern half of Puglia, which is influenced more by the culture of central Italy.
Puglia’s Mixed Legacy of Wine
A recurring theme in Italian wine regions, especially those lesser-known ones such as Puglia, is a historical reputation for quantity over quality. This was and often is still the case for Puglia.
Because of its warm, Mediterranean climate, ever-present sunshine, and fertile soils, Puglia was and still is one of the largest producing regions in Italy. Business has been good, thanks to the large amounts of red wine suitable for blending with other wines across Italy, Europe, and the world. However, since the advent of the fine wine industry in places like Argentina, Chile, and Australia, demand for Apulian “plonk” wine from local grapes Uva di Troia (“grape of Troy,” now called “Nero di Troia“) and just about any other varietal that would sell has decreased in favor of more thoughtful wine-making.
Still, international varieties such as Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay abound here as varietal wines with IGT labels, and as blending grapes in wines such as Primitivo, the wine grape discovered via DNA to be Zinfandel’s likely old-world ancestor. Many areas still specialize in bulk wines to be shipped everywhere for Vermouth production and table wine. This is not a bad thing, though, as Puglia’s climate supports a vast variety of grapes, and producers’ philosophies are geared much more towards quality now.
Apulian Wines and Regions to Know
Wine from Puglia, especially of indigenous varietals, is mostly red. While plenty of international varieties are found, there are three red grapes that define the native wines of the region:
Primitivo- this very close Italian relative to Zinfandel is responsible for two of Puglia’s best wines, Primitivo di Manduria (DOC), and Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale (DOCG). The former is a red wine that gets its name not because of a “primitive” nature; rather, because it ripens early. Manduria is the only area of Italy that specializes in Primitivo, and, like parts of California with Zinfandel, its wines are inky, tannic, and intense. Primitivo has a slightly more bitter edge that can require some more time in barrel or bottle before being approachable. Primitivo is rare in Italian grape varietals in that, in Italy, it is really not cultivated outside its home region.
Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale is one of the very few DOCG regions for which Puglia can brag. Like other unique DOCG wines around Italy, this is a sweet dessert wine made involving some kind of drying of the grapes before fermentation. In Manduria, these wines can only be made in years the climate cooperates, as the process requires drying the grapes on the vines themselves, as opposed to on racks as seen in Amarone, for example. The result is a super-concentrated primitivo grape whose wines end up with 80g/L of residual sugar and 13.5% ABV, minimum.
Nero di Troia- According to ancient myth, this grape was planted by Greek hero Diomedes after helping defeat the city of Troy and journeying to modern-day Puglia. Whether that is true or not, the grape is deeply entrenched in Puglia’s wines.
Nero di Troia, previously and sometimes still known as “Uva di Troia” (grape of Troy, as opposed to black of Troy), is a black-skinned grape that produces heady, tannic juice typically suited for blending. However, as more care has been taken to understand Puglia’s fine wine potential, producers have scaled back production and started producing Nero di Troia that is worthy of aging and 100% varietal wine. By picking grapes as they ripen instead of all at once, DOC and even DOCG level wines have been made based on Nero di Troia. These wines (as with most cultivation fo this grape) are made mainly in the hillier northern section of Puglia. The best examples actually come from three independent DOCG wines, made by Castel del Monte, all featuring Nero di Troia (as well as Bombino Nero, Negroamaro and Aglianico).
Negroamaro- The last of the local varieties to know in Puglia is Negroamaro. Like the other Apulian grapes, it is black skinned and often blended with other local grapes (like Malvasia Nero and Primitivo). It produces medium-full tannic wines with dark berry fruit flavors, earthy tones and brown spices such as clove and allspice.
Negroamaro does make the majority of one of Puglia’s few DOC wines created in 1976, the red Salice Salentino DOC. Here it is blended with the fruitier Malvasia Nera.