Southeastern Italy, the so-called heel of the country’s boot, is the location of Puglia, an up-and-coming wine region. I had the pleasure of exploring the area with Movimento Turismo del Vino Puglia, which hosted journalists and wine buyers from all over the world, educating us on their wonderful wines and the history behind the vines.
Puglia (also known as Apulia) is a peninsula that sits between the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. The region is 300 miles long and 40 miles wide, bordered on the northwest by Molise and on the west by Campania and Basilicata. It’s the largest producer of wine and olive oil in Italy, with some trees dating back 1,000 years.
The region has a wonderful Mediterranean climate with long, hot, sunny summers cooled by northern winds and ocean breezes. There is a constant airflow, making the conditions a perfect place for grape growing. The rich reddish soils, known as terra rosa, produce wines with distinct and special characteristics.
In years past, wines from Puglia were sent to other areas of Italy and Europe for bulk or blending, but today wine producers, some from afar, are investing in the region, working with top winemakers to produce interesting and quality wines using high- tech marketing to help get the word out. Puglia has new energy and is becoming one of Italy’s most exciting wine regions.
The north and south are the two main subregions for wine production, both with specific grape varietals. There are more than 30 DOC (controlled designation of origin) regions; one of the best known is Castel del Monte, which has received international credibility for its well-structured red wine and excellent rosé, including the Castel del Monte Bombino Nero, Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva, and Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva, all recently promoted to DOCG status (controlled and guaranteed designation of origin).
The most well-known grape varietal is Primitivo (which has the same DNA as California’s Zinfandel grape), many grown in alberello vineyards, a vine training method used since ancient times. The grapes are found in long, large clusters with thin, delicate skins. The name comes from the Latin primativus, meaning early ripening. The grapes are harvested early, in August, one of the first grape varieties to be picked in Italy. Primitivo wine is robust, showing a deep, dark red color with aromas of lavender, cherry, plum, and raspberry, leading to flavors of dark berries, tobacco, licorice, and cocoa. The wine is well balanced with good acidity and tannins. Primitivo has a powerful personality and tends to be high in alcohol (around 15 percent) yet surprisingly smooth and easy to drink.
Negroamaro is a red grape that also grows all over Puglia, especially in the southern parts. The grape can stand heat and drought, adapting well to all sorts of soils, but prefers clay and limestone. The skins are high in polyphenols, an antioxidant. Wines made exclusively with Negroamaro are intense, full of black fruit and ripe flavors. Negroamaro is often blended with Primitivo and other local grapes for easier drinking.
Another red grape dominating Puglia is Nero di Troia, also called Uva di Troia. The grape favors the central to northern growing regions. Nero di Troia originates across the Adriatic, said to be planted by Diomedes, the Greek hero who battled the city of Troy (Troia) and made his way over to Puglia. Harvested later in season, Nero-based wine is lower in alcohol, bright and lively with elegant violet fragrances leading to flavors of cherry and blackcurrant. The wine has a velvety smooth well-balanced texture.
Puglia produces outstanding rosés (rosato in Italy) from these red grapes that are complex, affordable, and easy to drink anytime of the year. They pair well with the local fish available in this seaside region.
Some other red native varietals to the region include Aglianico, Bombino Nero, and Malvasia Nera whites include Fiano, Falanghina, and Malvasia Bianca. Emerging are the international grape varietals syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and sauvingon blanc. In addition, there are a number of herbal- and citrus-infused spirits made from local plants.
This winery connects agriculture to beauty with views of the Mediterranean Sea. Amastuola has 2,000 ancient olive trees lining the road to the newly built winery and soon-to-open agritourism masseria (farm), which covers 250 acres of vineyards. The winery has one of the largest organic vineyards in Italy and Europe, producing wines with low sulfites. They make an incredible dessert wine, Dolce Vitae, with flavors of lavender, citrus, and almonds.
With deep roots in the southern part of Puglia, four generations of Apollonios have produced mostly aged wines. Since 1995 brothers Marcello and Massimiliano have taken the winery to new heights. It’s one of the most recognized wineries in Italy. They produce acclaimed rosatos, along with two dozen other quality wines.
A biologist turned winemaker, Claudio Quarta explores micro- territories producing wines that tell the tale of its origin. The winery resembles an art gallery and museum with ancient Greek artifacts, where you can taste a lineup of excellent wines, some created by Quarta’s daughter, Alessandra. The winery is also involved in a project containing more than 500 grape varieties from all over the world.
Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli
Owned by the Count Spagnoletti Zeuli, this property dates back before the 1600s and surrounds Castel del Monte. Noble traditions meet modern technology, sustainable farming practices, and renewable energy here. All grapes are estate grown: Nero di Troia, Montepulciano, Aglianico, Bombino Nero, Bombino Bianco, and Fiano. The Contessa Emanuela Spumante is a sophisticated white or rosé wine perfect for any royal occasion.
Two properties in Puglia are owned by the Antinori family, producers of popular Tuscan and California wine. Their wineries use the alberello and head-training system in the vineyards, and all wines are made from only estate-grown fruit. A standout is Masseria Maime, the flagship wine made from 100 percent Negroamaro— powerful yet elegant.
A contemporary winery is in a converted eighteenth-century monastery located near Castel del Monte. This third-generation family business produces 8 million bottles, half of which are private label exported worldwide. They are the first winery using Nero di Troia grapes. The Torrevento Vigna Pedale and Ottagono are DOCG wines. Other native varietals include Aglianico, Bombino Nero, Pampanuto, Negroamaro, and Malvasia Nera e Negroamaro.
Puglia is a unique historic Italian region, which may be reached by flying in to Brindisi or Bari. Outlined with ancient ports, fishing villages, coastal cities, prehistoric caves, and beaches, there are also interesting areas set in the interior areas of the region.
One of the best ways to enjoy the dramatic coastline is by train, starting in the city of Lecce, then heading up through Brindisi, Bari, Monopoli, Polignano a Mare, and Trani (known as the “Pearl of Puglia”). The area is also easy to navigate by car, and the terrain is made for cycling (motor- or bi-), with many interesting routes. Boating and water sports abound.
Puglia has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Alberobello is a tiny city filled with more than a thousand whitewashed trulli buildings (a round structure with cone-like roofs made to be demolished and rebuilt quickly), with narrow streets and alleys where you can stroll along and shop. Castel del Monte, built as a hunting lodge in 1240 by Frederick II, a Holy Roman Emperor, has eight octagonal towers and is the most visited place in Puglia. You will also find several informative wine museums located throughout the region.
The land is filled with vineyards, olive trees, almonds, figs, cherries, eggplants, and other delicious produce. Fava beans with orecchiette pasta is a Puglian favorite dish. Mozzarella and ricotta cheeses are used frequently in cooking. Lamb is the preferred meat and the seafood is plentiful—including sea urchins.
For more information and a list of wineries visit mtvpuglia.it.