Puglia is the peninsular high heel of Italy’s boot. It faces the Balkans and has attracted invaders and visitors since the Greek era. It was part of what the Romans called Magna Graecia (“Great Greece”). Many of Puglia’s prominent cities were Greek colonial settlements, most notably the port of Taranto, which was Sparta’s Tarentum. It is hot in Puglia, but the land is cooled by breezes from the Adriatic and Ionian Seas that surround it. The hills are open and low, and the vast, fertile plain of Salento is second only to the Po Valley in size and productivity. Since the days of the Oscans and Messapians, before 650 BC, agriculture has been Puglia’s leading business.
Puglia’s annual wine production is 722,000,000 liters (over 80,000,000 cases), making it a close second to Veneto in terms of regional yield. Although there are more DOC zones than anywhere else in the south, only about 10% of Puglia’s wines are DOC. Reds, including fashionable rosés, account for about 70% of Puglia’s viticultural output.
The Table of Puglia
The Pugliesi eat well, prospering from the best of the Mediterranean diet. Although Puglia often plays third fiddle to Campania and Sicily for the highest culinary honors, it should not. For pizza, pasta, cheeses, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, seafood, and desserts, Puglia merits lofty ratings. The DOP bread of Altamura may be Italy’s best. Local hard biscuits, such as taralli and frisedde, are sold worldwide. Burrata cheese rivals the more famous buffalo mozzarella for delicacy and fresh, creamy softness. Also well known are DOP Canestrato and Caciocavallo. The mussels of Taranto are superb. Pizza, calzoni, and focaccia are wonderful, even if they are overlooked and underrated. Lampasciuoli, a bitterish bulb, and ruca (aka Rucola) are regular ingredients in Puglian soups and stews, as are fava beans. There is a wide variety of pasta shapes. Most famous are orecchiette (shaped like an ear), usually served with cima di rapa (bitter turnip greens) and local olive oil. Olives from Cerignola or the DOP Bella della Daunia are world class.
Lamb and kid are the preferred meats. The sea offers not only mussels, but also oysters, seppie (cuttle fish), calamari (squid), ricci (sea urchins), and all manner of fish, large or small, always fresh and tasty. Leave room for desserts, especially pastries, such as bocconotti (crescent-shaped shells filled with cream and jelly).
Vines and Wines
The Pugliesi love generous reds and dry, delicate-to-rich rosés. Still a leader in selling bulk (sfuso) wines, Puglia is increasingly home to vintners who bottle their best product for international markets. And their best is very good – and getting better with every vintage.
To understand the wines of Puglia, I like to divide the slender boot into four sections, North A and B, and South C and D. North A is high in altitude and influenced by Abruzzo and Basilicata. Reds dominate, with Bombino Nero, Montepulciano, Aglianico, and Sangiovese leading the way. Particularly noteworthy is DOC Castel del Monte, a blend of dark grapes highlighted by the Uva di Troia (aka Nero di Troia). This is a tannic, fragrant, long-lived wine, elegant and rich. Uva di Troia must be tamed by microoxygenation, oak aging, or both. It has the power and class to stand beside the famous red wines of central and northern Italy. There are also DOC white and rosé versions of merit.
North B is centered on DOC white wine villages, such as Gravina, Locorotondo, and Martina Franca. Local white varietals, including Verdeca, Bombino Bianco, and Bianco d’Alessano, are the primary blending grapes. Locorotondo and Martina Franca are picturesque towns, known for their distinctive conical-shaped houses, called trulli.
South C is the low-lying hilly area around Taranto. This is home to outstanding DOC Primitivo di Manduria. The Primitivo is linked genetically to the all-American Zinfandel and produces dry and sweet reds of excellent quality. The other outstanding area for Primitivo is Gioia del Colle, not far from Bari in North B. The generous, early ripening Primitivo is of mysterious origin, with Hungary, Croatia, and Puglia claiming its birthright. There is no mystery attached to its growing popularity worldwide.
South D contains Puglia’s most legendary wineries and its most important village wines. There is a mix of co-ops and privately held, family wineries. DOC reds from villages like Brindisi, Leverano, Copertino, Squinzano, and Salice Salentino are usually fashioned from Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera grapes. In particular vintages, Riserva versions will improve in the bottle for a decade or more, provided that they are cellared properly.
Recently there have been successful plantings of international varietals. Most of these are IGT reds. We should repeat that the DOC and IGT rosés of Puglia are outstanding. Rich, luscious dessert wines are made from Primitivo and Aleatico. The fragrant, aromatic Aleatico may be a mutation of Moscato, and grows also in Tuscany, Lazio, Elba, Corsica, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, where the locals enjoy sweet red wines.
The popularity of the wines of Puglia has been enhanced by tourism. It is not so much a haven for Americans, but Europeans, particularly Italians from the north, love the beaches of Ostuni and the hiking trails of the Gargano peninsula.