The sharp stiletto to Italy’s thigh-high boot, Puglia is often overlooked as a wine-producing region. Yet, this sun-soaked area boasts an ideal environment that makes it the second-largest producer of wine grapes in the country (behind Veneto) and a main grower for olive oil production.
Of course, with wine, quantity and quality walk a fine line. In the past, Puglia was marred by bulk grape-juice production used to bolster blends elsewhere. However, with technological advancements, a focus on cutting yields and a renewed interest in local varieties, Puglia is on the rise. It’s even digging its heel into the fine wine category.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, the region was swept up in the international grape craze and planted vast amounts of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and others. Producers have since shifted toward indigenous grape varieties that had long flourished in the area. Here are the main varieties to watch.
This red grape is found on the Salento peninsula. It’s the principal grape in the well-known Salice Salentino Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and widely used in the broader Salento Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). Despite its ominous-sounding name, Negroamaro produces savory, well-mannered reds that offer a wealth of dark berry flavors and earthy, gamy notes, like you’ll find in Cosimo Taurino’s Notarpanaro.
It takes on a fresher profile in many of the region’s bold rosatos, a style of rosé. Cantele’s Rosato shows off the classic style of the area, with its vibrant red-cherry color, wild strawberry and crushed herb flavors, and softly structured tannic profile. It’s a far cry from the pale-pink rosès of Provence.
Go, Go Rosato
With hundreds of miles of turquoise-lined coast, breathtaking Mediterranean views and warm, sandy beaches, it’s no wonder Puglia has embraced the rosé lifestyle. While Negroamaro is prominent in some of the region’s most distinguished rosatos, you’ll find options that feature most of the area’s red grapes. That includes the lesser-known Bombino Nero, which provides an incredibly drinkable, fruit-forward wine.
You’re already familiar with Primitivo. It’s the same grape as that flashy California transplant, Zinfandel. Named for its ability to ripen early, this dark-skinned grape flourishes along the southern shore of the Salento peninsula, near Manduria. There, it produces incredibly juicy, rich wines with spicy dark berry and violet tones.
While a sure-fire crowd pleaser and often priced attractively, the wines worth seeking out, like Polvanera’s 17 Vigneto Montevella, come from the Gioia del Colle DOC, which lies a little further inland. The hilly region enjoys a larger difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures than the Salento flatlands, which deliver these wines more lift and levity.
Nero di Troia
True greatness awaits this little-known red grape that constitutes two of Puglia’s four Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). It has become synonymous with the Castel del Monte denominations, which lie west of Bari and surround the UNESCO World Heritage site of the same name. While tannic when young, these wines soften with age to become supple and finessed. Rivera’s Puer Apuliae is an ode to this nearly forgotten grape. It’s concentrated in dark fruit tones, complex leather and sweet spice characters.
The origin of this white grape is often contested, as claims vacillate between Greece and Croatia. Once widely planted, it was thought of as a simple blending grape for vermouth production. Recently, however, the grape’s true potential is being realized. In the same vein of Leone de Castris’ Messapia, many producers highlight Verdeca in varietal bottlings that show off its crisp, clean fruit tones, laser-like acidity and stony minerality.
Non-native? No problem
While some international varieties have not been successful, the ever-adaptable Chardonnay grape has taken root in the region’s clay and limestone soils. The warm temperatures and cooling sea breezes ensure ripe fruit flavors and vibrant acidity. Unoaked versions from producers like Tormaresca offer uncomplicated, enjoyable wines at value prices.