Puglians, especially those from the Salento peninsula, are passionate about their favorite dance, the Pizzica. Once believed to be the remedy for a tarantula spider bite, this frenzied dance was originally accompanied by only tambourines. There has been renewed interest in … Continue reading
Wine in Puglia
Wine grape cultivation on this region’s hot plains goes back to at least 700 BC, and the geography and conditions could hardly be better suited. The Salento Peninsula, which makes up Italy’s narrow heel, is mostly low-lying and flanked by the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. This makes for breezes from both sides that help to temper the heat of the fierce summer solleone (lion sun). Winters are usually brief and mild in this part of Italy.
In the 20th century the priority was quantity; not quality, as many growers participated in the frowned-upon business of cultivating high yields and shipping their masses of strong, dark grapes north in bulk to French, German, Spanish and northern Italian wine producers. By adding the powerful Puglian grapes producers could beef up their own weaker vintages in years when their grape harvest was poor.
It was rare to find estates bottling their own wines. Although there are still co-ops sending grapes to France to make Vermouth over the last 20 years or so this activity has declined, as a host of new bottlers have been set up to make their own labels, with often fantastic results.
Primitivo is known to many wine enthusiasts for sharing the same DNA as the Californian Zinfandel. It is grown mainly in the south-western corner of Puglia, just in from the Ionian coast. Here the landscape is dry and stark, the horizon obscured only by olive groves and the occasional whitewashed village. This grape produces strong wines with an alcohol content as high as 15%, which has much to do with the glaring summer sunshine in Puglia. The sun also helps to lend these wines hints of liquorice and red cherry, which is balanced by a crisp inherent acidity. An excellent example is the full-bodied DOC Primitivo di Manduria.
Another variety is the Susumaniello grape that is only grown in Puglia. Formerly this variety has only been cultivated and sold as a wine to be added to other wines. More recently many wine-makers are now experimenting with this grape making new wines with delicious results. Read more about this variety here.
The Negroamaro grape tends to be grown closer to the Adriatic coast in northeastern Puglia. The scenery in this part of the region is a little rockier. Wines made solely with Negroamaro are often on the sweet side, so the grape is usually blended with Malvasia Nera—known for its softening qualities—to create robust reds and rosés that have spicy characteristics. Many reds made with Negroamaro can also be chilled. The most famous name here is Salice Salentino, a DOC producing reds, rosés and whites. These whites tend to be made from chardonnay grapes.
Whites are grown less frequently, but there are some excellent local varieties to discover in Puglia like the ancient Fiano, the rare Verdeca and Bombino Bianco, which were traditionally only grown en masse to be used in blends, but can be cultivated to craft wonderfully delicate and subtle wines.
In 2013, Wine Enthusiast Magazine declared Puglia as the best wine destination in 2013. Read more here. And Wine Spectator’s very informative iPhone/iPad app, Wine Ratings+, lists 18 wines from Puglia with ratings of 90 or above.
Chickpeas and Greens
In kitchens in the heel of Italy’s boot necessity has long been the mother of invention.
In a rural and traditionally hard-up part of Italy, Puglia’s cuisine is classic cucina povera (cuisine of poverty). This term might sound bleak and austere, but the spirit of cucina povera is improvising and making the best of what you’ve got from season to season. This limited palate gives rise to wonderful creativity in the kitchen. In summer the emphasis is on greens and fish, while in winter homemade pasta is preferred.
It also helps that the region’s staples like olive oil, vegetables, bread, pasta, seafood and lamb are of impeccable quality, which shines through in simple dishes.
Often flat and stark, Puglia is perhaps the most fertile agricultural region in the country. Here, through fierce summers and soft winters, olive groves, vines and durum wheat crops thrive.
Puglia contributes a hefty proportion of Italy’s wine and pasta, and also produces fantastic seasonal vegetables. As a rare Italian haven for vegetarians, a hallmark of the cuisine in Puglia is the unusual combination of fresh greens with pasta.
But the true symbol of Puglia’s food culture is the olive tree. Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. Olive groves cover vast swathes of the landscape—there are 240,000 farms and 60 million individual trees—and if you wander through one of these farms you’ll see wizened and twisted old trees with thick and knobbly trunks that give you an idea of just how old this industry is.
Olive tree cultivation in Puglia dates back to the start of the region’s colonization by the ancient Greeks, some 5,000 years ago. But the industry really took shape in the 1700s when tax breaks were handed down by Charles of Bourbon to any landowners who made space for olive trees. There are four EU Denomination of Origin of Production areas (DOPs): Collina di Brindisi, Dauno, Terra D’Otranto and Terra di Bari.
What’s exciting is the way the flavor of the oil changes from place to place. Collina di Brindisi oil is often a pale yellow hue and has a slightly fruity taste, while Terra d’Otranto’s product is a darker green and has a herby bouquet.
When it comes to pasta, the most popular variety in Puglia is orecchiette. It is shaped like a small ear, hence the name, and is great at holding sauce. Traditionally, orecchiette pasta is served with anything from horsemeat sauce to turnip greens. Strascinati has the shape of dry curled up leaves and once only furnished the tables of poor families, but is now served at the top restaurants. It goes best with a broccoli and chili pepper sauce.
On the coast, of course, the cuisine draws from the Ionian and Adriatic seas. In Bari for instance the local specialty is a baked rice dish with mussels and potatoes.
In the interior, where the land is rockier and less arable, herds of sheep are a common sight. Here in winter, warming lamb stews are served with crusty bread such as the the DOP Altamura, which comes in rustic circular loaves.
Every year the editors of Wine Enthusiast Magazine travel the world in search of the best wine and food as well as the most exciting places to visit. Puglia is on the list for 2013. The magazine describes Puglia as a “magical wine destination” and “a thin peninsula packed tight with stunning beauty and surrounded by some of the bluest waters in Europe.”It’s an undiscovered land with an enviable quality of life.” According to Wine Enthusiast, “Puglia offers wines for all tasting types.” Read more here.
Among the variety of wines praised by the magazine are the reds from Uva di Troia, Bombino Nero and Aglianico, the white Bombino Bianco and the sweet Moscato di Trani. The editors describe Puglia’s local wines as showing “ripe berry nuances, inky concentration and soft tannins.” Also mentioned are the crisp white wines made from the Malvasia, Fiano, Chardonnay and Greco grapes.
Puglia produces more wine than any other area in Italy. The grapes of Puglia ripen most of the year due to the mild, dry climate. Because of this, the grapes have a higher sugar content. In years past, much of the grape harvest was shipped to France for mixing with French grapes where the growing season is shorter and the climate rainier. Now the focus is on quality rather than quantity and growers are adopting new practices to produce better and better wines.
Now I know why I lose weight in Italy! There is now yet another reason to consume olive oil. Yesterday there was an article in the NY Times about yet another advantage of this healthy oil – “The research found that compared to other oils and fats, extra virgin olive oil was more likely to increase a person’s feelings of satiety after a meal. But another phase of the study showed that just imparting the scent of olive oil to food – by adding an aromatic extract – reduced the amount of calories people in the study consumed and improved their blood sugar response.”
80% of Italy’s olive oil comes from Puglia, the Mediterranean’s elixir for health…a perfect reason to join Unique Backroad Journey’s trip to Puglia in October. We will visit a olive tree farm that makes organic olive oil on the premises.