Friday Focus; Puglia, Italy

Today we journey to the oldest of the Old World, a place with a history of grape growing and wine making that dates back thousands of years; Puglia. The origin of the name is Roman; a-pluvia means ‘lack of rain’, an adage which holds true today. The regions is located in the very south-east of Italy, and makes up the entire heel of Italy’s boot, to just below mid-calf height, where the ‘spur’ of the Gargano Peninsula juts out into the Adriatic Sea. Safe to say, the region enjoys an extremely Mediterranean climate, being surrounded on almost all sides by this large body of water. Puglia has a long history of producing wine due to this interesting mix of climate, topography and soils; the heat combined with the lack of rain made it a very difficult place to grow grain, and the hilly landscape north of the Appian way and soils of iron oxide rich topsoil over a calcareous, high acid subsoil also were not conducive to growing grain or fruits. As we know now though- the grapevine can grow anywhere! Over the thousands of years of production in this area, several grapes were chosen through trial and error to produce the best grapes in this hot, dry, hilly climate. The olive tree is another very important crop (Puglia is responsible for 50% of Italy’s total olive oil production), and trees are usually seen lining the rows of grape fields.

Puglia is the 2nd most productive wine region in Italy (after the large and fertile valley of Veneto), and due to it being a long, thin region, is split very broadly into 3 sub-regions. Foggia in the north has the coolest climate and is the closest to the trading routes of central Italy, and therefore has the most commercial varieties, such as Montepulciano and Merlot. Bari e Taranto in the middle section of the region is more traditional, crafting wines from native variety Uva di Troia, which makes a rich, dense and black olive-bitter red, though the variety is spurned by large-scale producers for its low yields. This sub-region also produces an interesting sweet white made from Moscato Bianco in the Moscato di Trani DOC. Brindisi e Lecce is the southern-most sub-region, and by far the most traditionally Puglian, holding tight to its Greco-Roman heritage. Here the powerful and fruity Primitivo (most well-known as America’s Zinfandel) and tannic and savoury Negroamaro (literally ‘black-bitter’) are kings. As a break from the dry heat, this sub-region also makes a delicious rosé from Ottavianello (Southern France’s Cinsault). Across all three sub-regions however, 2 grape varieties can be found which make up the most grown and 2nd most grown respectively; Sangiovese and Trebbiano Toscano are the main constituents in huge production, cheap and rather thin red and white wines, destined for cooking wine across all of Europe.

A region known in the past for large volumes of cheap, high alcohol wine, Puglia began to struggle about 10-15 years ago after the introduction of ‘New world’ wines from Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Africa into Europe. These wines were the same price as Puglian wines due to the good exchange rate and had similarly high alcohols, but were of far superior quality. Unsurprisingly, sales of Puglian wine plummeted. Since then, the region as a whole has made a concerted effort to lift the average quality of the region’s wines to be more competitive. This was done firstly by cutting down the ridiculously high allowed yield per vine; when the vine is allowed to produce large numbers of big bunches, this results in more bottles of wine, however the same nutrients and flavour compounds are spread across a larger number of grapes, which results in an abundant number of tasteless, acidic grapes. Compare the thought of this to a fruit-forward and rich Aussie or Chilean red, and it really wasn’t a competition. And if you can’t beat them- hire them? Today, many of these new world countries provide the winemaking know-how to large scale wineries looking to make wines in this style; ‘flying winemakers’ are common, flying up for the northern hemisphere harvest and wine production season before flying back to do the same in the southern hemisphere 6 months later. Sounds exhausting!

Recently, as seems to be the case in all the old mass-production centres throughout Europe, many winemakers have moved to more international varieties in an attempt to entice consumers into trying Puglian wine using a variety they know and trust such as Chardonnay and Merlot. This is at the cost of rarer native grape varieties such as Uva di Troia and Greco Bianco- some of which are artefact bush vines over 100 years old. In general however, despite this attempt to move Puglia in a more quality-focused direction by decreasing yields and homogenising varietals, the majority of wine made and sold in Puglia still goes directly into Vino di Tavola blends, and adds alcohol and tannin to an entry level Italian blend found in supermarkets all across the world.

Kind Regards,

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager