Puglia is not only southern Italy’s most important wine region, it’s also one of the largest wine producing regions in the whole of Italy, responsible for 20% of the country’s wine production. For many years, it was the real workhorse of Italy, with its production of rich, bold reds, being trucked up north to beef up the lighter, paler reds of the north, and to produce vermouth, but over the last 15 years, this is a region which has revealed itself as the producer of some of the most interesting and characterful wines of the south, especially reds.
About Puglia Wines
Puglia lies at the very south east of Italy, lying in the so called ‘boot’ of Italy, and stretching from the ‘calf’, north of Bari, deep into the Adriatic ocean. Whilst the Brits and Germans were discovering Tuscany, then Umbria, and other central, and more northern regions, as perfect holiday destinations, Puglia carried on quietly, and unnoticed, producing half the country’s olive oil, a great proportion of its wine, and much of its produce. Today, things have changed, and along with a now international reputation for high quality wines, especially reds, the region is becoming an increasingly fashionable holiday destination, with its overt Grecian influences to the south, in terms of architecture and lifestyle, with ornate churches, brilliant white houses, and a culinary style, which again picks up many influences from Greece. But Puglia is unique for its houses, called ‘Trulli’ – houses with grey slate conical shaped roofs, or towers, which are seen all over the region.
The climate in Puglia, is as expected, very hot in the summer, with mild winters, although this varies quite starkly between the north and south of the region, as does the geography and also the culture of the area, with the northern sector, above Bari, more mountainous, with much colder winters, and closer in culture to its central Italian neighbours, whilst the southern boot, sticking out into the sea is almost totally flat, and strongly linked to its Greek ancestry.
Despite its southerly , and potentially less connected location, over the last 25 years, Puglian producers have been some of the most forward thinking. As the quality of wine drinking increased, and sales of Italian wine grew the world over, demand for the Puglian bulk wine decreased, as consumers looked for better and more interesting. So Puglia uprooted a large proportion of its lower quality, workhorse vines, and began to plant higher quality ones, both traditional and international, and enlisted the help of overseas, often new World winemakers. Today it has single handedly turned itself into one of the most versatile and innovative of wine regions.
Mainly a red wine region, there is a little white produced, and some sweet dessert wines, but the reds reign supreme, from the traditional Negroamaro grape of the deep south, to the more opulent Nero d’avola, the cousin of California’s Zinfandel, to increasing plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. In the north of the area Sangiovese dominates.
Puglia splits naturally into 3 main regions, of which 2 are the main wine producers:
Foggia in the north produces fairly standard mid weight reds, none really memorable, made from the Sangiovese and Montepulciano.
The region between Bari and Brindisi is known as the central area, and here, alongside the reds, you will find some fresh dry , yet full bodied whites, labelled Gravina, one of the only whites in the region, grown on one of the few rocky mountains, close to Bari; the cooler climate thus permits the production of fresher styles of white, from the Malvasia blanca and Greco bianco. The red grape of note is undoubtedly the traditional, but lesser-known Uva di Troia, which produces rich, spicy, licorice scented wines, with deep fruit and colour, but frequently high tannins.
It is the south,down from Brindisi, that the true delights of Puglia are to be found. Although international varieties are now increasing in plantings, this hot area, tempered by the all surrounding Adriatic is home to two of the most characterful grapes in the country, the Negroamaro and the Primitivo, each very different, and each contributing to different styles of wine. The main DOCs of note in this part of Puglia are Salice Salentino, Copertino, Brindisi, producing some unique and memorable styles of wine.
Styles of Wine Produced In Puglia
Puglia produces predominantly red wines, although a few whites, and blended white varietal wines are now coming into existence. It was one of the first Italian regions to defy Italian wine law, and start labelling wines by the grape varieties, from which they were made, thus catapulting them immediately to international success, as their wines were easier to understand, than the more traditionally labelled.
Gravina – citrus flavoured, minerally and surprisingly fresh and lively, the dry whites from Gravina benefit from their elevated growing location and inherent cooler climate.
Central Puglia – in this area, the Uva di Troia reigns supreme, yet is not particularly well known, producing rich, traditional, spicy wines with weighty tannins.
Southern Puglia – Primitivo is at its best in the area spreading out from Taranto, including the area of Manduria, producing, rich, aromatic and violet- scented red, which are approachable at an earlier age than many Puglian reds, whilst the stronger, tighter, intense Negroamaro is responsible for the majority of the reds of the deep south, with their deep, dusky, black fruit flavours, and hints of spice and mocha. The best known and most recognisable names are Salice Salentino, Copertino and Brindisi.
The south is now also producing a myriad of varietal and dual varietal wines, frequently blending a traditional grape, with an international one, with a high degree of success and recognition, such as Primitivo/Merlot, Negroamaro/Sangiovese, to name but two. An increasing number of varietal rose wines are also now being produced.
Grapes, Wine & Food Mathcing
The main traditional Italian grapes grown in the region are:
Primitivo – debate has been going on for years about how closely related this grape is to California’s Zinfandel, and where it actually originated. It supposedly arrived from Croatia centuries ago, and differs from many of the red grapes of the region, because of its relative softness, and early ripening style (Primitivo means ‘early’). A delightful wine, Primitivo has a natural warmth, and aromatic spiciness, with an attractive red and black berry fruit style. Whilst still high in tannins and alcohol, it has a natural sweetness, a juicy, fruity style and velvety warmth, which make it very appealing. On its own, or blended with another red grape, it’s perfect with slightly spiced meat or vegetable pasta dishes, and completely at home with barbecued or roasted pink lamb, and simple steak drizzled with fresh, southern herbs. Don’t overcomplicate the food with Primitivo and let the wine sing!
Uva di Troia – rich, intense, often quite tannic reds, with dense licorice and spiced black fruit flavours – best with rich game stews, and braised lamb shanks, as well as mature hard cheeses.
Negroamaro – these are often big, bruising, yet richly fruity reds, packed with mocha,spice and almost dried fig and berry flavours; powerful and brooding, they often need time, and frequently work well in a blend. These are great with seared steak, spiced burgers, roast venison, and rich stews.
Sangiovese – produced in the northern part of the area, but increasingly as a dual blend in the south, the naturally lighter, softer, lower tannin Sangiovese, with its high acidity, is rounder, and richer in the south, but still retains its inherent character, and makes a delicious partner to the rich tomato-based pasta sauces of the area, as well as being great with lamb chops, savoury beef, and simple barbecued dishes, as well as hearty sausages and plates of cured meats.