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Italy's Heel is Hopping

Between the spur and the heel of the famous Italian boot is the region of Apulia.

Though there is some industry in the vicinity of its largest city, Bari, a countryside patched together with vineyards, olive groves, and fields of wheat testifies to Apulia’s most important products. Until recently, Apulia had a reputation for producing bulk wines that were sold to other Italian regions and other countries. Because Italy and many of the major consuming nations of the world are drinking less but better wine, the Apulian wine industry is now turning its head toward high-quality bottled wines that showcase indigenous grape varieties and reflect the region’s heritage. The most likely venues where American consumers will experience this new breed of Apulian wine are restaurants, particularly those that specialize in southern Italian cuisine. Americans know so little about these wines that servers must educate as well as serve.

Wine History and Pioneers
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, phylloxera diminished the diversity that existed in Apulian vineyards. Farmers replanted with productive varieties that in most cases did not produce the best-quality wine. During the 1930s, the rise of cooperative wineries assured farmers that they would have a buyer for their grapes and stabilized the price that they would receive. In the 1950s, a land-reform act empowered the government to forcibly buy, at its own price, large tracts of land from large landholders, which it then carved into small parcels and distributed among poor local farmers. Most of this land, however, was never used effectively. Today, investors are buying these plots at low prices and are amassing huge holdings, reversing the land-reform initiatives of the 1950s.


The first producer to bottle wine for commerce was Leone de Castris in Apulia’s south. He put Five Roses rosé into glass during the 1930s. In the 1950s, in the vicinity of Castel del Monte near Apulia’s center, Rivera also began to bottle, and Candido, in Apulia’s south, followed in 1959. During the 1980s, Cosimo Taurino, working with the US importer Winebow, made its Salice Salentino better known in the US than in Apulia. While the quality-wine sector grew slowly during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, the bulk-wine market skyrocketed. A combination of low cost land and labor, a climate that ensured regular ripening, and grape varieties that were either highly productive (e.g., Negroamaro) or easily made high alcohol wine (e.g., Primitivo, the same grape as Zinfandel) made Apulia an ideal volume wine producer.


In the early 1990s, Apulia’s annual volume of production would have put it in the league of the world’s top ten wine-producing nations. In the mid-1990s, the bulk market began to decline. In response, the EU offered farmers money to grub up their vines. Many vineyards became fallow land with little value, creating a vacuum for agro-investors.


New Wine Interests
Apulians feel that the region’s many occupiers throughout history have taken bounty from their soil without giving something back to the land or its people. Now a new type of “invader” has arrived in Apulia: investors from other regions, principally from the north. Among the more recent arrivals are Antinori at Tormaresca, GIV at Castello Monaci, Feudi di San Gregorio at Ognissole, and Zonin at Masseria Altemura. Will these companies use indigenous varieties? Will they employ local workers and give them credit for their work? Will they make investments beyond their property lines? Will they label and position products in a way that improves the image of Apulia? Time will tell. Meanwhile, larger-size, local producers are expanding their activities. Former vinifiers such as Cantele and Torrevento have purchased land and become estate producers, and grower-vinifiers such as Cantore di Castelforte have inserted spanking-new bottling lines.


Climate and Elevation
When Apulians talk of their countryside, they draw a hypothetical line that extends from Brindisi to Taranto. North of this line a coastal plain reaches to the Galgano promontory, the spur of Italy’s boot. West of this plain is a plateau, the Murge, which undulates between 800 and 1,900 feet above sea level. Further inland still are foothills of the Apennines. South of the Brindisi–Taranto line, the Adriatic and Ionian seas sandwich a low, flat plain. Breezes off these seas are both cooling and humid, which overall have a moderating effect on what would be a blistering-hot climate.

The key factor affecting temperature is elevation. While vineyards exist nearly everywhere in Apulia, only on the Murge plateau and in the foothills of the Apennines can one find growing environments capable of producing white wines with body and character and red wines with fruitiness. On the plains near the sea, many white varieties are harvested early so as to preserve acidity. Red varieties, particularly Primitivo, usually produce high- alcohol wines with dried-fruit aromas.


Familiar Appellations
The legal labeling system with its 25 DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, Italy’s second tier of wine quality) and six IGTs (Indicazione Geografica Tipica, Italy’s third tier of wine quality) does not make it easy for Americans, who barely recognize the name Apulia. There are three appellations that have name recognition in the US market. Two come from south of the Taranto–Brindisi line: Salice Salentino DOC is famous for red wine made of Negroamaro with a maximum of 20 percent Malvasia Nera. Primitivo di Manduria DOC is a 100 percent Primitivo. North of the line is the Castel del Monte DOC, named after the imposing octagonal thirteenth-century castle of Emperor Frederick II, which is perched aerielike watching over the Murge. The red Castel del Monte, a blend of Uva di Troia, Aglianico, and Montepulciano, is the most famous.


Red Grapes Rule
Apulia has an interesting array of indigenous red grapes. Around Brindisi, Negroamaro is king. Negroamaro wines show animal smells and a palate notably high in acidity. Impressive examples in a traditional style are Cosimo Taurino’s Patriglione and Agricola Vallone’s Graticciaia. Tormaresca’s Masseria Maime is Negroamaro in more stylish international garb. Malvasia Nera is commonly added to Negroamaro to give it floral smells and softness on the palate.
The important zone for Primitivo is around the town of Manduria. Primitivo combines high alcohol and rich texture. A classic Primitivo is Accademia dei Racemi’s Dunico, made from old vines grown in dunes on the Ionian coastline. The first Primitivo vines noted in seventeenth-century literature were grown at higher elevations in the vicinity of the town of Gioia del Colle. After phylloxera, farmers planted Primitivo on the coastal plains, where the land is easier to cultivate. It is at Gioia del Colle, however, where fresher, more California Zinfandel–like wines can be produced. A 2004 Primitivo di Gioia from Accademia dei Racemi and one from Cantine del Locorotondo are both excellent.


Aglianico appears at higher elevations in the interior. It makes wine softer than Basilicata’s Aglianico del Vulture. The wines are perfumed, rich, and ageworthy. Tormaresca makes a stylish, modern Aglianico called Bocca di Lupo. Closer to Apulia’s northern border with Molise, Montepulciano becomes an important red variety. It makes rich, substantial wines that are often somewhat rustic in character. A grape saved from near extinction is Uva di Troia. It is common north of Bari. Its wines feature high acidity and are reputed to improve with bottle age.

Two “new” varieties that will appear on the market are Susumaniello (“Susu”) and Ottavianello. Susumaniello, which was rescued from near extinction, makes deeply colored, fresh, lean, and elegant wine that improves with age. Accademia dei Racemi is the pacesetter with this variety, having produced two vintages of Torre Guaceto Sum, a 100 percent Susumaniello wine. The producer also has planted a large Susumaniello vineyard that is not yet in production. Near Brindisi, Rubino makes Torre Testa, another Susumaniello. Zonin and Feudi di San Gregorio at Ognissole have young vineyards of Susu. Cabernet Sauvignon grows without problems but produces strange-tasting wines. Merlot would not seem like a good choice for Apulia’s hot growing season, but D’Alfonso del Sordo’s 100 percent Merlot 2003 Doganera is an exotic, luscious version that defies logic. Another foreign variety with promise is Ottavianello, which has been identified as Cinsault. This makes a soft, Pinot Noir–like wine. Try Accademia dei Racemi’s Torre Guaceto Dedal.


Apulia’s Whites
Unfortunately, Apulia has less impressive native raw material when it comes to white-wine production. Wines made from Verdeca, common in the provinces of Bari and Taranto, are neutral, acidic, and often blended with another local grape, Bianco d’Alessano, in wines labeled Locorotondo DOC and Martina Franca DOC. Bombino Bianco, common north of the Brindisi–Taranto line, makes another rather neutral, tart wine. Greco, also known as Greco di Tufo, is Apulia’s most consistently solid white grape, dominating the blend of Gravina DOC, an appellation where the Botromagno winery enjoys a near monopoly. Another indigenous white variety is the Gewürztraminer-like Fiano Minutolo; I Pastini’s Vigna Rampone is the most interesting example.
Chardonnay, not indigenous to Apulia, is the region’s most versatile white variety. For fresh, lively, and clean versions, Cantele is dependable. D’Alfonso del Sordo’s first vintage of a barrel-fermented, barrel-matured 50 percent Chardonnay-50 percent Sauvignon Blanc, the 2002 Candelaro, is the best up-market international white wine I have tasted from Apulia.


Looking Forward
There has been a sea of change in how Apulians view their wine industry: the move toward quality rather than quantity of wine; the beginnings of a sense of pride in what is Apulian and a desire to show it to the world; and the adoption of a more scientific approach to wine production.
There is a need for innovative producers in the mold of Accademia dei Racemi. This producer ignited interest not only in Primitivo but also in single-vineyard Primitivo and is now leading the way in developing Susumaniello and Ottavianello. At the same time, Apulia benefits from outsiders in the mold of Marchesi Antinori, a firm that hires Apulians, makes Apulian wines of noble breed, and has enough international market penetration to single-handedly improve the image of the region.
Apulians now understand that wine is more than what is in the bottle. Cantore di Castelforte has built a tasting room. The Consorzio Produttorie Vini has a museum and hosts events for the public. Accademia dei Racemi has opened a wine bar and restaurant called La Vinoteca 001. But will the world get the message and then buy the wine?


what is an APULIAN WINE?

Apulian wine is mostly red; Primitivo and Negroamaro are the most important varieties. Red-wine bouquet shows ripe-fruit flavors, evolving rapidly to the prune with sweet (burnt sugar) and spicy (Indian spice and cedar) accents. The warm climate assures high concentrations of alcohol. Negroamaro adds vibrant acidity; Primitivo provides an appealing astringent texture.
With few exceptions, Apulian white wines are undistinguished. The grapes are usually early harvested, and acidity is preserved at the cost of complexity.
Apulia’s rosés, especially the fine, bracing rosés made from Negroamaro, are the best in Italy.


Red wines lose their ruby tint, color moves toward garnet, and intensity diminishes after one or two years in the bottle; it is best to drink them a year or two after release. Bottle maturation for more than four or five years risks the loss of fresh fruit. Drink up the rosés and whites upon release.


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