Wine in Puglia
Puglia has long had Italy’s most productive wine industry, but despite the ideal conditions and interesting local grape varieties it’s only in recent times that premium wines have been bottled here.
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.
One of the things that makes Puglia such an alluring region for wine is its many indigenous grape varieties, the most famous of which are Primitivo and Negroamaro, now producing some premium wines.
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.
Indeed, there has also been a trend towards planting international grape varieties to provide other countries with more economical chardonnays and sauvignons.
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.