The ancient Roman's looked upon Puglia as a "Garden of Eden", it was a major supplier of agricultural produce and wines to the ancient army. Historically though, the southern part of Puglia is more heavily influenced by it's ancient Greek inhabitants, so much so even today the Puglian dialect is littered with ancient Greek words and it is this Greek influence that gives Puglia its love of grapes, not just for the production of wine but also as a dessert. Today Puglian dessert grapes are cultivated in fields covering almost twice the total area of all the vineyards in Germany combined.
Puglian Grape Varieties
Puglia is often called Italy's grape factory, the permitted yields here are higher than anywhere else in Italy and some Puglian vineyards produce yields up to 16 tons o grapes per acre (around 40 tons per hectare) - four times the amount many industry experts believe the upper limits for quality wine production. In addition to these high yields, most of which are mechanically harvested from the vast Puglian plains, wine is pretty much a second thought in the region. Although around 2% of Italy's total wine production has DOC status, in other words viewed as quality wines in the eyes of the law, Puglia has an almost infinite number of DOC labelled wines. Almost every village, especially the ones around the provinces of Brindisi and Lecce, seems to make it's own DOC wine, many of which are produced and bottled by one or two growers. The majority of Puglian grape produced go to be used as the raw materials for the Vermouth factories in the north or to be made into grape concentrate which is used in Italy to flesh out weaker wines instead of using the traditional method using beet sugar.
Today Puglia definitely has the potential talent in it's winemakers to turn out very good quality wines, alas very few of these growers ever fulfil their true potential. In this typically southern Italian region not only the climate is ideal for quality wine production, the regions native grape varieties display a depth of character and quality most other regions could only ever dream of, many with a very distinctive character. The most common grape variety in Puglia is the red Negroamaro variety, used in many of the regions DOC wines, such as Brindisi, Alazie, Latarano and Salice Salentino, but some also makes the regions stunningly sweet Aleatico wines. Puglian Negroamaro wines are usually dark in colour with a good robust flavour but occasionally they display a slightly rustic rough edge.
Puglia's secondary grape variety is the Primitivo grape, a red variety that originated from the Croatian variety Crljenak Kastelinski, which was also the mother variety from which the original Californian Zinfandel and Croatian Plavac varieties were developed. All these varieties have very similar qualities, but up until recently only the Californian Zinfandel recognised the varieties full potential for quality wine production. Many people believed that Zinfandel originated from the Italian Primitivo variety, but in reality Zinfandel was already a established variety long before the Italian Primitivo. Primitivo and Zinfandel developed independently from the Crljenal Kastelinski variety and only recently has the the link between to two been scientifically proved.
Many Puglian wine producers use Montepulciano d'Abruzzo to round off the often slightly rough character of their Negroamaro, by blending these to great varieties together many winemakers achieve a rounded and harmonious character to their wines. The red variety Uva di Trioia, a major component in the wines around Castel del Monte and the white Bombino variety are both wines well worthy of a mention so too are the Puglian wines made from international grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Lets take a quick look at the wines of Puglia -
Salentino is a relitively new denomination of table wine with a geographic mark of origin (IGT). This wine was partly created to regenerate some of the best wines of Puglia, many of which did not comply with the regulations of DOC, many failed with regards to wine style and varietal composition. This has created a virtual myriad of varieties and styles of wine which are now sold under the Salentino label. Many of the appellations produce both red and white wines, a few even produce a rose Salentino, dessert Salentino and even a sparkling Salentino, all of which show varying levels of quality.
Castel del Monte
This is Puglia's most northern top-quality wine. Castel del Monte is produced around the castle of the same name in central northern Puglia. Red Castel del Monte is often blended with the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or Uva di Trioia, to produce some good wines and one or two great, very elegant and complex wines.
Salice Salentino is one of of the oldest DOC wines of Puglia and should not be confused with the IGT wines of Salentino. This single village appellation from the place of the same name produces a great number of different wines, not only red and white, but also rose Salice Salentino, dessert Salice Salentino and the great sweet wines of Aleatico.
Primitivo di Manduria
The only quality mark in Puglia to designate a single varietal wine, 100% Primitivo. It has recently produced a range of attractive and often interesting wines from the areas around the provinces of Taranto and Bari. Primitivo di Manduria wines are now often produced in a dry, soft fruity style.
Copertino red wines come from around the town of Lecce in the far south of the region. This single-village appellation uses primarily the Negroarmaro grape variety to produce a single-varietal Negroamaro wine, but many of the areas Negroamaro wines are blended with Malvasia, Montepuliciano and Sangiovese varieties to round off some of Negroamaro's rough edges.
This is another Negroamaro based wine named after the province in which it is produced, wines here are often blended with other native varieties to produce rounded, fruity wines often with great character and plenty of fruit. There is also an excellent Riserva quality red Brindisi which is matured for longer in barrel and is made with a higher alcohol content which gives a wine with much more ageing potential.
Other Puglian Wines
Of all the Puglia regions DOC and IGT wines Sansevero and Alezio are both well worth a mention. San Severano can be both red, white and rose and are produced in the northernmost parts of the region. Alezio can be either red or rose (made from either 100% or blended Negroamaro).
The sweet wines of Aleatico di Puglia, the Gioia del Colle (which includes Primitivo in it's range of varieties) and Leverano, Salice Salentino's neighbour, all produce good quality and often rather exciting wines. There is also an interesting wine made from a blend of traditional Puglian native grapes called Cacc' e Mmite di Lucera, which is well worth a try . . if you can pronounce it.