Puglia, at the heel of Italy, is a region of contrasts. The deep south produces Primitivo, a gutsy, full-bodied red wine, which is much better known as Zinfandel in California. However, DNA tests have shown that it originates from across the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, where it is called Crljenak. In contrast, northern Puglia is known for Nero di Troia, which demands quite different conditions.
A morning with Sebastiano de Corato, from the wine estate of Rivera, provided clarification. Sebastiano explained that Puglia is 400 kilometers long, but only 50 kilometers wide — or 248 long by 31 miles wide — so that most of the vineyards are relatively close to the sea. The Adriatic is not very deep, so it does not have much effect on temperatures, but it does bring wind. The north wind cools the vineyards in summer and in winter even brings snow. Winters are much cooler in northern Puglia than at the bottom of the heel. Sebastiano would, in fact, divide Puglia into three regions, each with its own indigenous grape variety. Primitivo is grown around the towns of Manduria and Gioa delle Colle, to make the DOC of Primitivo di Manduria; Salento is the home of another full-bodied rich grape variety, Negro Amaro; while in the north, where Rivera is situated, the key variety is Nero di Troia, or Uva di Troia.
A wildly diverse grape landscape
Here you will also find Aglianico and Basilicata, as well as Montepulciano, grow from the Marche right down to Puglia. In the south, Primitivo and Negro Amaro ripen early, during the hottest part of the year at the end of August, whereas the grape varieties of northern Puglia, especially Nero di Troia, are much later ripening. The grapes are still unripe during the heat of summer, and the wines have a lower alcohol and higher acidity than those of the south. Consequently, Montepulciano is usually picked at the end of September, Aglianico at the beginning of October, and Nero di Troia as late as the end of October. In other words, the harvest takes place two whole months later than at the foot of Italy.
The whole focus of winemaking in Puglia has become more serious. In the north, vast swathes of vineyards were planted with Bombino Nero, which was mainly used for a pink wine, which was very fashionable in the 1960s. Rivera has a photograph of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton drinking Rivera rosato on the Via Veneto in Rome, and the property was featured in a film with Sophia Loren. Now those vineyards have been pulled up, and wheat is grown there. And in the south, the principal vocation was to provide deeply colored, rich, alcoholic wines for sale in bulk to northern Italy, for blending with lighter, less full-bodied wines. Consequently, the creations of DOCs came relatively late in Puglia, with Primitivo di Manduria recognized in 1997 for a gutsy red wine made from the Primitivo grape that is grown in about twenty villages with Manduria at their center.
DOCs vary by region
In the north, the principal DOC is Castel del Monte, which takes its name from a fabulous 13th-century castle that was built by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II — not to defend anything, but to assert his authority. It can only be described as dramatic and awe-inspiring, especially with the white stone reflecting against the brilliant blue sky of a bright autumnal morning. It was almost dazzling. However, the landscape of Puglia is surprisingly flat, and lacking in hills, so that there are groves of olive trees, almost as far as the eye can see, and vineyards — a dramatic sight of a flock of black starlings on their way to Africa flying over red-leafed vines — and then there is scrub land, which is scattered with little cassette, or small trulli, the stone houses (that look like igloos) that are traditional to the area. Although people farmed, they lived in towns and came out to the countryside to work, staying for a few days in a casetta.
The DOC of Castel de Monte covers red, white and rosato. The white is made from Bombino Bianco as well as some Chardonnay and Sauvignon. The rosato comes from Bombino Nero, which has low sugar and high acidity and thin skins, which makes it more suitable for rosato. And the star of the Rivera portfolio is Il Falcone, Castel del Monte Riserva. It is not a single vineyard, but a wine that represents the very best of the vintage. And the blend is traditional to the area, 70 percent Nero di Troia and 30 percent Montepulciano, aged in French barriques. The current release, the 2006 vintage, illustrates superbly the potential of Puglia as a rising star of southern Italy and shows how successfully it is shedding its previous rather dubious reputation as a producer of bulk wine for blending. The color is deep, with some ripe cassis, spice and oak on the nose, and there is also a touch of mint, with beautifully balanced tannins with youthful fruit. It is yet another example of the thrill and excitement that Italy has to offer in a glass.
Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.
Photo: Vineyards in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George