Puglia is often called the heel of the Italian boot, but if we take a look we see that this large region is more fittingly called the heel and the spur. North-south oriented Puglia looks out to the Adriatic Sea on its entire eastern length and to the Gulf of Taranto on part of its west, giving it the longest coastline of any of the Italian regions. In English it is sometimes referred to as “Apulia.” Puglia is flatter than most of the rest of Italy. Although only the seventh largest of the twenty regions in Italy, it stands number two in both grape and wine production (after the Veneto), but leads the country in olive oil production. A cursory look at our Puglia wine map would lead to the conclusion that grapevines and olive trees necessarily coexist, as they often do in the Mediterranean. As to the wine, for generations it was cheap and red, but the international market is demanding better quality, and the Puglians are listening. Puglia has 28 DOCs and four DOCGs.
Puglia’s two leading red grapes, Primitivo and Negroamaro (also written as Negro Amaro), account for a solid two-thirds of all plantings. Primitivo is genetically identical to California’s Zinfandel grape, but the sub-varieties (clones) differ from hundreds of years of separation. Both derive from the Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski grape. Primitivo and Zinfandel also differ greatly in how they are handled. Californians let Zinfandel ripen to high sugar levels, bringing high alcohol, low acid and riper, gentler tannins, for a smooth fruity wine. The Puglians pick the grapes earlier, at lower sugar levels, bringing lower alcohol, higher acidity and more expressive tannins, an entirely different wine style. Nevertheless, given the popularity of Zinfandel, you will see Puglian wine labels with “Zinfandel” emblazoned under the “Primitivo.” Note that Primitivo does not mean “primitive,” but rather refers to the fact that the grape ripens early.
We will begin at the spur and work our way down to the lower heel.
San Severo DOC was Puglia’s first. It looks north for its grapes, basing its Rosso on a minimum 70% Montepulciano with Sangiovese, Malvasia Nera, and Merlot. Whites (in this red wine learning area of the world) are based on Trebbiano and Bombino Bianco.
In looking at Cacc’e Mmitte di Lucera DOC, we must first explain its odd name, but we cannot, due to the fact that too many stories exist and none are able to be substantiated. The robust, highly tannic red wine here comes to us from the very local (and very obscure) Uva di Troia grape, which leads blends, helped by Malvasia Nera, Montepulciano and/or Sangiovese as well as a number of permitted white grapes : Trebbiano Toscano, Bombino Bianco and/or Malvasia del Chianti
The wines of Orta Nova DOC, all red or rosé, are produced from Sangiovese helped by Uva di Troia and Montepulciano, with up to 10% from the white grapes Lambrusco Maestri and Trebbiano.
Rosso di Cerignola DOC and Rosso Barletta DOC both produce red wine from the local Uva di Troia with partners Negroamaro, Sangiovese, Montepulciano and even some Malbec. The nearby Rosso Canosa DOC is similar.
The red wines of Castel del Monte DOC are based on Uva dei Troia, this time with Aglianico for support and some Bombino Nero. Three wines in this promising area have been nominated for DOCG status: Castel del Monte Bombino Nero, Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva and Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva.
Moscato di Trani DOC produces white wines from Moscato Bianco, the Italian version of Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains.
The rolling hills of the Gravina DOC give it an excellent climate for producing some of Puglia’s best white wines from Malvasia Bianca, Greco Bianco and Bianco di Alessano.
Robust red wines are the calling card of the Gioia del Colle DOC. Primitivo leads the blend with at least 60% with up to 40% Negroamaro, Sangiovese and Montepulciano, individually or as a blend, and up to 15% Malvasia Nera.
The Locortondo DOC is one of the oldest in Italy, a karst region with limestone soils. This is primarily white wine territory from the hyper-local Verdecca and Bianco d’Alessano grapes. These two grapes plus Fiano can be single varietal wines. Wines are both still and sparkling. The nearby Martina Franca DOC produces similar white wines.
Colline Joniche Tarantine DOC is an up and coming region trying its hand at international varieties, creating a Cabernet Sauvignon-led red blend and a Chardonnay-led white blend, with varietals from Primitivo and Verdeca.
Lizzano DOC is a coastal region just south of Taranto. It is completed enclosed in the larger Primitivo di Manduria DOC. Lizzano makes whites, reds, rosatos, and sparkling wines. The leading red grape is Puglia’s own Negroamaro, which gets support from Bombino Nero, Montepulciano, Pinot Nero, Sangiovese, and Malvasia Nera. Whites are Trebbiano based. Varietal wines may be made from Malvasia Nera and Negroamaro.
Primitivo di Manduria DOC is Primitivo’s core area. This is dark, tannic wine that needs some aging to precipitate out some of the grape’s characteristic bitterness. The vine-dried sweet Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale DOCG, Puglia’s first DOCG, weighs in at 8% sugar.
The Brindisi DOC, part of which is urban, specializes in the tannic red Negroamaro for full-bodied wines with baked dark fruit. Up to 30% Malvasia Nera or Montepulciano and up to 10% Sangiovese may factor into the mix.
The Ostuni DOC leads its Bianco blend with the local Impigno grape, filling it in with the equally local Francavilla for a light aromatic wine that does best in cooler vintages. Ostuni has a red side also, producing floral and spicy rosés from Ottavianello, the local name for the Cinsault grape of France.
We move to the southern realm of Puglia’s other red grape, Negroamaro, meaning literally “bitter black.”
Salice Salentino DOC is the flagship Negroamaro specialist. Rosso and rosato are minimum75% Negroamaro with Malvasia Nera or Aleatico as usual partners in the blend. Aleatico (85%) and Negroamaro (90%) are produced as varietals. The white blend is 70% Chardonnay with varietal Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, and Fiano also offered. Spumante can be made from any of the whites or from Negroamaro. Several Aleatico-based sweet and fortified wines are also produced. Leverano DOC is similar. Squinzano DOC makes wines similar to Salice Salentino and Leverano, but with no sweet or fortified wines. Copertino DOC has a simple structure: just reds and rosés from minimum 70% Negroamaro, maximum 30% Malvasia Nera, Montepulciano, and/or Sangiovese (maximum 15% Sangiovese). Nardò DOC makes reds and rosés from minimum 80% Negroamaro; maximum 20% Malvasia Nera di Brindisi, Malvasia Nera di Lecce, and/or Montepulciano. In Alezio DOC the proportions are minimum 80% Negroamaro; maximum 20% Malvasia Nera, Sangiovese, and/or Montepulciano. Matino DOC: 70% Negroamaro; maximum 30% Malvasia Nera and/or Sangiovese. Our final DOC, Galatina DOC, broadens out into some white wines with a Chardonnay-led blend and varietal Chardonnay. The Galatina red and rosé blends are a minimum 65% Negroamaro with a varietal Negroamaro at 85%.