The Salento peninsula as the cliché goes is the heel of the boot of Italy – but at least that tells you where it is is. Geologically it is a limestone rock surrounded by the Adriatic sea to the east and the Ionian sea to the west. In vine growing terms that means that it has a promising geology (‘iron-oxide stained clay and limestone’ says Nick Belfrage) and benefits from a strongly maritime influence in an otherwise very hot Mediterranean climate. It is an area of many towns, large and small, intense cultivation of vines and olives and, of course, endless beaches, much visited in summer. Its chief viticultural glory is its old bush vines (alberello – ‘small tree’), now treasured by at least some growers prepared to put in the work by hand which they demand. Many of course were pulled up under the aegis of EU ‘improvement’ schemes, some have been converted into rows which allow some work by tractor, others continue in their old-fashioned unordered messiness.
The towns are built on a slightly chaotic ‘system’ which I am sure makes absolute sense to the pedestrian or cart driver. Some might claim that finding any system in the planning is an overstatement, but basically what seems to have happened is either ribbon development or a series of grids from four or five directions based on main roads into towns which collide (that is the only word) in the middle. For the car driver, what has now happened is signage for what are trying to be inner ring roads through the grids. Basically, you need a strong navigational sense (which Janet has), or you ask repeatedly or use Google maps … or pray. It sort of works.
In the Salento you are basically in red wine country and the area has two main grape varieties. The most famous of these is Primitivo, with Primitivo di Manduria being the leading DOC (quality designation). This is basically the same grape variety as California’s Zinfandel, though the wines in Puglia tend to be big, but not enormous, in structure and, at least to my taste, better balanced. They are typically made from Primitivo on its own, with a few interesting exceptions (see for example, Cantele, below). The second major grape variety is Negroamaro, grown all over Puglia and responsible for the very popular and sometimes very good rosé as well as full bodied, rich reds. The classic blend is 90% Negroamaro and 10% Malvasia Nera, the latter contributing an aromatic lift. The leading DOC is Salice Salentino though there are numerous others. One of the Salento problems is the number of DOCs, with the result that only Primitivo di Manduria has stuck in popular mind. There are plans for all Salento quality designation (perhaps without Manduria who might want to keep its name) which would be a big help in marketing the wines.
This section highlights six wineries. They include the typical large concerns (whether co-operatives or privately owned), a historic winery, and the smaller exciting newcomers gripped by the potential for great wine under a reliable sun.
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