Well-Heeled Wines

Puglia (the Italian name for Apulia, in Italy’s southeast) gets no respect, wine-wise. Or it didn’t, until recently, because while it produces more wine than any other region in Italy, the stuff was mostly bulk, rough-and-tumble tannic fruit bombs. In the panorama of Italian winemaking, Puglian wine hovered in the background as a slightly disreputable ingredient, the liquid equivalent of MSG, discreetly added to some well-known blends from the north in thin years to boost tannins and depth.

While there are still many farmers and wineries going for high yield and bulk wine—it’s not easy to persuade farmers traditionally paid by the ton to go for quality instead of quantity—some have made the transition to lower production and better wines. Wineries like Taurino and Botromagno have introduced different styles of vine training, mercilessly pruned over-hearty vines, and cleaned up winemaking practices. They’ve also embraced the farming-cooperative models popular in the south, gathering small farmers to the cause. And Puglian winemakers are learning to market to Americans by listing grapes on the front label the way New World wineries do.

Puglia makes interesting whites, especially in the Gravina DOC, but mostly produces reds. Here’s a crib sheet of the most common grapes out of Puglia.

Primitivo

Related to Zinfandel, these grapes share the same intense fruit character but come off a little more feral, with hints of savory and funk. Wineries sometimes take advantage of the grape’s California connection and put “Zinfandel” somewhere on the label along with “Primitivo.” The only official wine area for the grape is the Primitivo di Manduria DOC, in the very south.

The producer Luccarelli makes some fine examples; its A Mano and Prima represent the fresh fruit side of Primitivo. Botromagno, which is located in the northern part of the region, shows a more elegant, balanced Primitivo, in which the fruit stops being the frontman. Earthy, herbal, and complex, these Primitivo wines hit different notes as you drink, with acidity much like that of Chianti.

Negroamaro

Negroamaro means “black bitter,” and this grape makes a very Goth wine—dark fruit, dark spice, heavy in body, with a bitter finish. Cosimo Taurino, former patriarch of the Taurino winery, was the first to note that Negroamaro could produce wine every bit as fine as the north’s better-known Valpolicella and Amarone, and the Taurino wines from this grape, especially the Notarpanaro, are benchmarks.

Negroamaro shows best when blended with the highly aromatic Malvasia Nera, as in Salice Salentino DOC, probably the best known of Puglia’s wines. Salice Salentino rates as one of Italy’s best buys, medium to light bodied with a vivid dried-cherry flavor and a hearty edge. Many great, small producers exist; look for a recommendation from your local wine shop, or try the offerings from Taurino or Cantele. Li Veli’s fancier version of Negroamaro, Pezzo Morgana, shows even deeper and more complex flavors. Wine from the Squinzano DOC features similar reds. And check out the rosés too: With their vibrant fruit, big flavors, and refreshing acidity, they’re some of Italy’s best.

Uva de Troia

This grape, grown only in the Rosso Canosa DOC, deserves mention for a unique quality: Wines made from this grape always smell of violets. The example easiest to find is La Violetta, imported by California winery Bonny Doon and offered under its DEWN label.