Italy, Puglia: a celebration of indigenous grapes

Southern comfort

puglia mapPuglia, which forms the ‘heel’ of Italy’s boot-shaped outline, is an agriculrural paradise. The classic, picture-postcard image is of ancient, gnarled olive trees behind low stone walls, the landscape dotted with the distinctive, white-washed ‘trulli’ buildings. And indeed that landscape – seemingly frozen in time – still makes up large tracts of this region which, along with neighbouring Calabria, contributes 70% of all olives grown in Italy.But this is an historically poor region too, its GDP much lower than the north of Italy and most of Europe. In recent decades there has been substantial investment. Steel, chemical, manufacturing and high-tech industries are all now part of the Puglian economy, as is tourism with a regular supply of cheap flights into both Bari and Brindisi. But agriculture – much of it small scale – is still the lifeblood of Puglia. The region supplies the bulk of Italy’s pasta, much of its fresh fruit, and grapevines and wine continue to play an important role.

History, geography and climate

Puglia has always been the engine-room of Italian wine production. This region is hot and flat, but that is mitigated by constant sea breezes – especially from both sides of the southerly Salento peninsula – and long-established bush vines offer some resistance to drought. In truth, much of the regions’s massive grape production was from high-yielding vineyards sited on the baking plains, the fruit destined for distillation or to be sold off cheaply in bulk. The number of bottlers, and in particular estates bottling their own production, was a tiny proprtion of the total, and most of those were to be found in the Salento peninsula.

But many in the Puglian wine industry have realised that contributing cheap wine for distillation or to help fill the European wine lake was a flawed strategy. There is a new emphasis on quality throughout Puglia’s regions, and both DOC and IGT appellations are attempting to up their game to compete with bottled wines on a world stage. Oenological consultants and flying winemakers are here in force, and there has been investment into the area from such well-known names as Antonori of Tuscany.

Grapes and wines

My visit to Puglia in summer 2009 was specifically to judge at a competition called the ‘Radici‘, which is is subtitled ‘Festival dei Vitigni Autoctoni’, or The Festival of Native Grapes. Though plantings of international varieties, noteably Chardonnay for IGT wines, have increased, Puglia has a treasure trove of indigenous grapes that the Radici, and many wine lovers in and outside of the region, want to preserve and celebrate.

Negroamaro is king here, making robust reds and fragrant rosés especially in the south, whilst Primitivo is probably the most recognised grape, thanks to its close genetic twin, the Zinfandel of California. Nero di Troia is the third of the big Puglian red wine varieties, with pockets of Aglianico (much more popular in the neighbouring Campania and Basilatica provinces) as well as Montepulciano and Malvasia Nero. White wine grapes and wines are confined to supporting roles in Puglia. Bombino is the most planted variety, and is thought to be related to Trebbiano. There is some impressive Fiano beginning to emerge, this being the Fiano also found in nearby Avellino, whilst a local strain called Fiano Minutolo, or sometimes just Minutolo, is also relatively popular.

The Radici Festival

xMy six-day programme in Puligia included three days judging 250 wines made from native grapes as part of the Radici Festival. The Radici is unusual in that two juries of 12 people participate, each tasting all of the wines. I participated in the Technical Jury, made up of wine professionals, whilst the Wine Lovers Jury is composed of amateur wine tasters, but is an experienced group including top restaurateurs and educators. Both juries award prizes to the top two wines in various categories, and it was fascinating to see where the juries agreed and disagreed. Radici seeks not only to celebrate native varieties, but to reward sensitive wine- making that does not smother the character of the grapes, through over-extraction or excessive use of oak for example. Right: Franco Ziliani of the Technical Jury hard at work.There was also a special award this year for the contribution made by the late Cosimo Taurino for improving the worldwide reputation of Puglian wines.

The producers and wines

I also spent a couple of days visiting wineries in the southern part of Puglia, both large and small. My impressions and tasting notes on the wines follow. There are still quite limited numbers of Puglian wines on UK shelves, but please see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Accademia dei Racemi

xThe Accademia is housed in a large, quite industrial winery built by Constantino Perrucci, and the business is currently run by his son, Gregorio. The main buildings – unglamorous but functional – date from the 1970s, and were substantially extended in 1990s. The Accademia operates as a cooperative or winegrowers ‘club’, and historically sold most of its wine to France and Spain in bulk. Using rich, strong wines from the south to ‘improve’ weaker vintages was illegal but common a few decades ago, and as Gregorio says “What happened to our wine when it reached France or Spain? Who knows…”

Today this is a much more quality focused operation, and vineyard manager Salvatore Mero (right) showed me around a few of their 120ha of vineyards, which today provides all the fruit for Accademia dei Racemi. There is a rich variety of soil types here, including red soils rich in iron and potassium. Some vineyards are on pure, deep sandy soils – much like Chile – so should be Phyloxerra resistant, but Salvatore still plants on American rootstocks, because they are also drought resistant and can withstand the heat of this region. Other soil types are completely rocky, tufa soils that Salvatore had to crush before he could plant a vineyard, and black soils, which he says give acidity and spice, whilst the red soils give lower acidity but more fruit.

In most vineyards the old system of arborello training – bush vines with no wires – is being moved over to a spur-trained guyot system. In 1998 Gregorio was first person to release a DOC Primitvo de Manduria (previously Primitivo was bottled as vino de tavola), and the Accademia is still best known for its Primitivo. “We harvest at 50-60hl/ha for quality,” Says Salvatore, “though the DOC limit is 70hl/ha.”

x for tasting notes on 8 wines from Accademia dei Racemi

Santi Dimitri

xCarlo Vallone (right) showed me around his family estate, a sizeable poperty of 200 hectares, though only 60 of these are planted to vineyards with 40 hectares of olives and a collection of 200 species of oak trees – the latter the hobby of Carlo’s father.

The vineyards were established in the 1990s, including a special programme for breeding old Negroamaro varieties. Santi Dimitri was also the first to plant Fiano in the region, though records suggest the variety was known here centuries ago. They have also planted Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – “Very hardy and they do better in a very wet years than local grapes,” according to Carlo. He also reminds me that here they are just 15 kilometres from the sea in one direction and 25 in the other, so there are always breezes to cool the vineyards.

Old bush vines have been re-trained on cordons since the mid 1990s, so that they can machine harvest: “In this heat it is a huge advantage, minimising the risk of grapes oxidising in the sun,” Carlo explains. There are lots of varietal experiments with olives too. Though only some of the groves are certified organic, all farmed organically. “It’s too risky to certify everything organic, because if something goes wrong one year and you are forced to treat the vines, the market won’t accept you chopping and changing between organic certified and not,” Carlo explains.

x for tasting notes on 8 wines from Santi Dimitri

Masseria L’Astore

xPaolo Benegiamo, a dentist by profession, owns this beautiful estate which he runs with the gentle assistance of his father, Achilles (pictured). The 18th century Masseria was derelict from the 1930s through to the 1960s, suffering through the worst of the region’s economic downturn. Paolo’s grandfather had been a grape grower and wine producer, so in the 1990’s he started planting vineyards in a revivial of an old family tradition. Masseria L’Astore’s first production was 1995.

Italy’s most prolific consultant, Riccardo Cotarella, is advisor here in an operation that concentrates on indigenous grapes. They have found parcels of 50- to 70-year-old arborelli-trained Negroamaro – famously not Cotarells’s favourite grape, but Paolo says he is hoping the wine from his old vines will change that.

Vines are farmed with organic practices, but the same problem experienced by Carlo Vallone at Santi Dimitri mean certification is not possible, as they cannot risk too strict controls: “The weather is totally crazy,” says Paolo. “It has been reaching 45c much earlier than it should.” Soils retain water well, and they rarely need to irregate, instead ploughing deeply between rows to force roots deeper. The estate also produces organic olive oil from its oldest trees. Again paolo tells me it is too difficult to farm young trees organically, because the extremely high humidity of the region is shrugged off by the oldest trees, whilst younger ones need to be sprayed against rot and disease.

x for tasting notes on 6 wines from Masseria L’Astore


xThe youthful Luca and Alessandro Attanasio run this small, family estate who’s cellars are in the centre of the city of Manduria. Luca (left of picture) works in vineyards and cellars, whilst Alessandro looks after administration and marketing. Their father, Guiseppe, still works in the vineyard at the age of 73, whilst I can vouch for the quality of the almond cake baked by their mother (centre).

Like many others, the Attanasio’s used to sell their grapes to the local co-op, from the 1930s up until 10 years ago, when they decided to make wine. They are concentrated on making a small production (from just five hectares of vines) of seriously top-end wines. They have just started to farm organically, with an eye to biodynamics in the future.

Allesandro explains that biodynamics is particularly difficult and expensive, since their very narrow vine spacing means everything must be done by hand to condition the soil. “Working five hectares of arborella vines is like working 20 of wire-trained vines,” he tells me. Their small cellar is crammed full of French barriques, and they work with consultants in winery and cellar. The prefectly formed little winery has lots of small, open-top steel fermenters and basket presses, with obvious attention to detail everwhere.

x for tasting notes on 3 wines from Attanasio

Agricole Vallone

xAgricole Vallone is one of Puglia’s better-known estates, their wines in all important international markets (and distributed in the UK by Boutinot). The estate was founded in 1934, and like most at that time, sold grapes to the local co-operative. In 1997 that stopped, and they started to bottle their own wines, quickly developing a reputation, especially for thier top wine, Graticciaia.

Current president and owner Donato Lazzeri (right) led me through a small tasting in their stunning Castello di Serra Nova estate in Carovigno. In fact, the company has three wineries in Puglia, one near Brindisi with 100ha planted to vineyard, Castello di Serra Nova with 40ha planted (for IGT and DOC wines) and 30ha in San Pancrazio for DOC Salice Salentino.

Castello di Serra Nova was planted just five years ago, a clos vineyard around a stunning old Masseria, the walls and gardens a riot of brilliant colour. The courtyard is where grapes are dried for passito wines: Sauvignon Blanc and Malvasia Bianca for the Passo de le Viscarde, and Negroamaro for their ‘super-Puglian’ red, Graticciaia, which was first produced in 1986. All of the vineyards are planted at an average density of 4,500 vines per hectare, newly-planted blocks as well as sections that are over 70 years old.

x for tasting notes on 4 wines from Agricole Vallone