One table at Grape Expectations Christmas Wine fair really stood out for me. This wasn’t just because it was Italian but because it featured wines mainly from one region, Puglia, usually known as the heel of Italy. It’s always a bonus to be able to compare local styles side by side and to taste less well-known wines.
For Puglia, the challenge remains to convert mass wine production into quality wines which will attract a decent price. Within Italy it has to overcome prejudice against the south from the richer and more populous north; with regard to the rest of the world it has to get it’s name noticed among the famous names of Piedmont and Tuscany. But among discerning drinkers, tiring of similar tasting Cabernet or Merlot from anywhere warm, it has much to offer: its own distinctive grape varieties of high quality, good value because of lower land prices and a reliable climate, and, of course, association with the currently fashionable brand Italy. The cause is really helped by a committed and passionate advocate like Ian Steel who runs ‘For the Love of Wine’. He is a specialist importer of Italian wines and his dedication and knowledge shone through this selection.
While most of the wines on offer were red, there were also three very different whites. Frascati Superiore Villa Romane 2008 from Satinata would dispels most of our memories of inexpensive and poor wines with decent fruit and a refreshing finish. The star of the whites was Kerner Alto Adige 2009 (Castelfeder). Floral, slightly herby and very attractive, it comes from under the Alps – a great example of the remarkable range of sites that Italy can offer. The third white was Piedmont’s slightly sweet sparkler, full of Muscat fruit, refreshing, low in alcohol, very drinkable: Moscato Frizzante 2009 from Volpi. These three were a great prelude to the reds.
Of the six reds, four came from Puglia. First up was one of the signature grapes of the region, Negroamaro. This name literally means ‘black bitter’ – the colour is certainly very dense and you need to know that ‘bitter’ is one of the most prized qualities in Italian cooking – think radicchio. However, Sampietrana’s Tacco Barocco Negroamaro 2007 is anything but bitter – yes it got tannins but it is soft, full of ripe dark fruit, with a nice finishing acidity. Great value at under £10.
Sampietrana also produce Brindisi Riserva 2007 in its 1952 range – the date of the founding of the company, rather than the vintage. This is Negroamaro again (80%), topped up with a bit of Aglianico, a great variety from neighbouring Basilicata and Campania. My tasting note is brief: ‘superb’. So I will borrow Ian’s: wonderful aroma of woodland fruits and richly flavoured’. And just under £11.
The Primitivo grape is probably the best known of the Puglian trio of grape varieties, not least in its Californian guise as Zinfandel. And many of the best wines in Puglia come from Manduria, in the province of Taranto, right in the heel of Italy: hence Primitivo di Manduria 2008, £12.50, again from Sampietrana. What stuck me about this wine was its balance – with a big, flavourful variety like Primitivo grown in what is basically a hot and reliable climate, it is relatively easy to produce a wine full of red and black fruit. What is more difficult, but is achieved here, is to retain balance and produce a delicious and drinkable glassful. Finally, the biggest of the three, Castel del Monte 2005, Pietra dei Lupi, £16.75, is made from the Uva di Troia grape. This has sappy red fruit, very drinkable again despite being a rather more serious style, with good length. This grape variety, also known as Nero di Troia, is distinctive for its tart and juicy, redcurrant fruit. All four of these Puglian reds are worth a try, all four go well with substantial food, especially meat.
The two other wines on the stand are also worth a mention, though they carried different associations. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the grape variety and then wine name, not the wine town in Tuscany, comes from the Abruzzo region, and is mainly known for being a great source of reliable, cheap, supermarket reds. Any reliable brand will produce a worthwhile bottle at £5-6. But, as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2007, Quercia dei Corvi (£10) shows, it’s not limited to that. This features sour berries and plums, and is very good indeed. Finally, Rosso di Montalcino 2005 from La Campana shows how good the supposed baby of the Montalcino wines can be. Here we are in southern Tuscany, in one of the most prestigious wine areas of Italy and with this example it does show: brilliant mid-weight Sangiovese, blackberry and cherry fruit, characteristic rasping finish. Not cheap at £18 but has real quality.
The message from this tasting was clear – if you want to find quality wines with individuality at a decent price, head to an unheralded region and find out what it does really well. Quality reds from Puglia make the case eloquently.
Many thanks to Ian Steel for making the long journey from Bury St Edmunds to show these characterful wines. His website shows an intriguing list of older vintages, both of Italian classics and of gloriously obscure bottles. I can feel a tasting coming on!