Andover Wine Friends’ January tasting gave the opportunity to review the stirrings of a quiet revolution going on in the heel of Italy. Puglia’s recent history – to add to the waves of foreign overloads going back to Greek times – has been of a reduction of the huge production, overproduction, of the 1980s (13 million hectolitres per year) down by half to seven million by 2005. This tidal wave of wine went into the vermouth industry, cheap red blends or had to be distilled to prevent the European wine lake bursting its banks. Even the so-called quality wine legislation allowed ridiculously high yields – 100-120 hectolitres per hectare on the vast plain of northern Puglia producing characterless wines, a better 63 hl/ha on the Salento peninsula. But alongside this obsession with quantity, the last 25 years has seen a focus on quality. The big cooperatives, the large private firms (both typical of Puglia) and the small number of small to medium sized quality producer-growers have all produced high quality lines at very reasonable prices.
If you step back from the history of bulk wine production in Puglia, this is hardly surprising. The region has a warm to hot Mediterranean climate, with the extremes of heat being moderated by the effect of the sea or altitude. The Salento peninsula is surrounded by sea on three sides. The Murge is a calcareous plateau with 450-500m of altitude. The region receives around 700mm of rain a year but nearly all of that is in autumn and winter, leaving a long, dry growing season. Drying winds further help to keep vines healthy. The soil is basically limestone – always a promising start for quality production – with a mixture of iron oxide. Land is relatively cheap and thus attracts inward investment from quality minded growers. Finally, while many of the alberello bush vines have been grubbed up in the name of progress and EU subsidies, many remain and, as they age and yields drop further, they are a great source of potential quality for the grower who can work them manually or in a semi-mechanised way. There are many factors which point to the potential for quality in Puglia.
This tasting comprised nine wines, two whites, one rosato and six reds. We started with Alta, Puglia IGT Bianco from Teanum, 2010, which was the test that the Bombino Bianco grape variety, responsible for some very dull wines indeed, can rise to the quality call. Harvesting by hand ensures good selection, while keeping fermentation temperature done to a, by Puglian standards, positively chilly 14°, ensures a clean wine with modest lemon fruit, some structure and refreshing mouth feel; not a bad wine but expensive for what it is in the UK (£8.75) with the rest of the world’s wines to choose from. Much more interesting was the Fiano from Villa Schinosa 2010. This grape variety is quickly gaining ground in Puglia, partly on the back of its great success in Campania across the Apennines. A warm medium lemon in colour, moderately buttery, honey notes, some herbs, good persistence and weight in the mouth, with a almond bitterness to finish. The rosé was a very typical example – medium deep salmon pink in colour, prominent strawberry aromas, some vinous aromatics, concentration on the palate, medium persistence, quite a robust wine intended for food, and good value at £6.75.
On to the reds which of course are the wines the rest of Europe and the world value from Puglia. First a real old favourite: Masseria Monaci’s Eloquenzia, 2007 from Copertino on the Salento peninsula. This is the enologist Severino Garofano’s own estate and features the Negroamaro variety, one of a trio of great red varieties to be found in the region. Medium ruby with hints of ageing, complex bouquet of violets and prune aromas, good fruit and development, balanced and medium plus in length – and all this for £6.95 a bottle, remarkable in terms of the quality/price ratio. We then took a quick detour via an old Puglian variety, Susumaniello, on the point of extinction because of its uncoperative habit of dropping production levels after only 20 years when most varieties will be highly productive for around twice that time. Sum 2007, from Racemi’s Torre Guaceto estate on the Brindisi side of the peninsular. A distinctive floral and bright black cherry to plum nose, bright fruit on the palate, good acidic finish – well worth saving from extinction.
Four excellent, premium reds followed. First a great personal favourite which Janet and I drank regularly on our Puglian trip of last Easter: a single vineyard Nero di Troia wine made by the big company Torrevento: Vigna Pedale 2007. This grape variety is paler and more elegant than the other two main Puglian varieties, giving Puglian reds more diversity of styles than you might imagine. Grown on the high plateau near Castel del Monte, the grapes are late picked for maximum complexity but still only make a wine of 13%. Superbly complex red fruit and oak notes on the nose, subtle red fruit to follow, a lovely savoury character, great balance and length, just under £20 in the UK.
Much better known is Primitivo from the Salento peninsula. We compared two examples from Racemi, who delight in the various soils available to them (black, red, sand) to produce different styles of wine. The simpler example was Sinfarosa 2009: from the red soils (that iron oxide we noted above), which has complex red and black fruit, is medium in weight with soft tannins and good acidity. Only 30-35 hectolitres per hectare, half the resulting wine aged in large barrels, the rest in stainless steel. Most people thought this was a £15 wine – in fact it is £8.95, showing that value again. By contrast there is inky concentration in Dunico 2007, from the Masseria Pepe estate, also run by Racemi, but this time on the sand near the beaches. Great depth of mainly black fruit, earthy notes, small amount of residual sugar, 15.8% alcohol – but well hidden by the fruit and acidity, still very drinkable.
And finally a Puglian cult wine which I had never tasted before as we did not visit Vallone last year. This wine was created by Severino Garofano to put something on the table in Milan and Rome and (especially) Verona at the national trade fair which would change the image of Puglian wine and say: great wines can be made in the far South. The best Negroamaro grapes are selected in the best years only and then, as with Amarone, are dried on graticci, mats, and then made into wine. The result is Graticciaia 2006. Very inviting nose of prunes and sweet, plummy fruit, a broad and luxurious palate, fine balance, very long. This is not a block buster wine – it is a powerful and seductive wine that you want to drink and to savour. A fitting conclusion to an introduction to the quality wines of Puglia.