Native Grapes Prosper in Puglia
Known for its white-sand beaches and seemingly endless sunny days, Puglia is the vacationland of Italy. Tourists from around the world flock in droves during peak summer season, basking in the region’s warmth, sipping on local fresh rosatos and enjoying the simple, yet refined, farm- and sea-to-table fare only Puglia can provide.
The heel of Italy’s boot is also the country’s agricultural hub, producing the bulk of the wheat, olives, vegetables and fruit that supply the rest of the continent. So it should be no surprise that wine grape production is also within its forte. Second only to Veneto, Puglia is a viticultural powerhouse that produced about a fifth of Italy’s wine in 2020.
Quantity and quality often don’t go hand in hand in the wine world, yet a growing number of small producers are reviving the region and pushing beyond its bulk-wine past to shed new light on a number of native grapes that have thrived in the region for centuries.
Producing some of the best red, rosato and even sparkling wines from Puglia, here are the main grapes to know.
Undoubtedly the hallmark grape of Puglia, Primitivo is one of the most widely planted black grapes in the region. Its name is derived from the Italian word primaticcio, which means first fruit, referring to the variety’s early ripening. With harvest as early as mid-August, Primitivo is among the first grapes picked in all of Italy.
If Primitivo is Puglia’s stalwart grape, Manduria is the reason why. Made of 18 municipalities in the province of Taranto, with the town of Manduria at the heart, this region is home to the rich, velvety-textured wines of Primitivo di Manduria Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). As with most well-known wine regions, location is key. The area is composed of terra rossa soils, which are sandy-clay in texture and rich in iron oxide, giving it a reddish color. While the area offers little in terms of elevation, it does benefit from its unique location between Puglia’s two seas. Hugging the Ionian on one side, with the Adriatic but 40 miles north on the other, wind generated from both seas is crucial for quality.
The wind “drastically reduces the presence of stagnant humidity, particularly suffered by the Primitivo,” says Giovanni Dimitri, commercial director for Produttori di Manduria, the oldest active co-op winery in Puglia. “And in summer, night sea breezes are essential for reducing temperatures in the vineyards, thus positively influencing the day-night temperature range.”
This temperature range is key for maintaining bright acidity, which is needed to balance the ripe, jammy fruit and higher alcohol that can easily creep up to 16% abv. The wines of Primitivo di Manduria DOC are typically bold and saturated with rich plum and dark berry flavors matched by bright acidity and coating tannins. Riservas must be aged at least two years—with minimum nine months in oak—prior to release, which results in unctuous wines that can benefit from up to 10 years of further aging before best enjoyment.
In the central Puglia province of Bari sits the inland denomination of Gioia del Colle. It lies at the foot of the Murgia plateau and is home to a Primitivo expression that is quite distinct from its Mandurian counterpart.
With elevations between 320 and 1,600 feet above sea level, this area benefits from generally less humidity than coastal regions. The temperatures consistently range from the high 80s°F to high 90s°F during the day in the summer months, while the night temperatures can drop up to 35 degrees—a stronger variance than typically found in Manduria.
In the west, closer to Murgia, the soils are lean and rocky, with a thin topsoil of terra rossa. “These particular conditions ensure that the Primitivo grapes offer wines of great elegance, freshness, minerality and longevity,” says Marianna Annio, who together with her husband, Raffaele Leo, owns and operates Agricole Pietraventosa. Wines from this denomination tend to showcase the more herbal, spicy side of Primitivo, with the rich fruit playing in the background.
Primitivo is also widely grown across much of the Salento peninsula, including the provinces of Taranto, Brindisi and Lecce. Wines not conforming to the Primitivo di Manduria DOC aging or yield requirements, as well as those grown outside the boundaries of Manduria, are typically labeled under the Salento Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP). This category is typically not as brutish as those from Manduria and not as restrained as those from Gioia del Colle, offering a fine balance between the two in expression and price point.
Wines to Try
Rivera 2021 Pungirosa Bombino Nero Rosato (Castel del Monte); $13
Nero di Troia
This nearly forgotten variety, which also goes by the name Uva di Troia, grows well in the area southwest of the city of Andria in central Puglia, where elevations can reach up to 1,400 feet atop the Murgia plateau. It’s most synonymous with Castel del Monte, a region named after the 13th-century castle of the same name—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—and constitutes two out of the four Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCGs) in Puglia.
A rather difficult grape in the vineyard, Nero di Troia is easily susceptible to disease and rot, and is typically one of the last grapes picked—usually in the last week of October. With around 6,000 acres of Nero di Troia planted and about 20 wineries in the Castel del Monte, the grape’s proponents are few but strong. Of the more prominent is Rivera, a family-run winery that began in the 1940s with the aspiration to showcase the unique varieties of central Puglia. The winery produces three red wines that highly showcase Nero di Troia. Each emphasizes the sleek elegance, deft structure and sultry violet and currant tones innate in the grape.
Wines to Try
Photo Courtesy of Riccardo Spila
Historically treated as a simplistic, high-yielding blending grape that eventually fell out of favor, the resurgence of Susumaniello in Puglia is a great example of the region’s recommitment over the past few decades to native grapes. The vine is highly vigorous when young and unless meticulously pruned it will yield a large amount of fruit—which was ideal in the region’s bulk-wine past. Beyond the 10-year mark, the vine becomes far less productive, which likely contributed to many of the older vines being torn up and replaced.
Small pockets of the grape are planted along parts of the Salento peninsula that border the Adriatic Sea, mostly in the provinces of Bari and Brindisi. There is no consistent style to Susumaniello. The red wines can be easy and fruity or bold and brutish, some laced with hearty oak. What remains throughout, however, are the supple tannins and rich, plummy fruit that will entice many consumers. Metodo Classico sparkling wines made from the variety can also be found; however, the rounded, fruity rosatos prove most promising.
Wines to Try
Masseria Li Veli 2021 Askos Susumaniello Rosato (Salento); $21
Tenute Rubino 2018 Oltremé Susumaniello (Brindisi); $19, 89 Points. There’s a brambly, spicy edge to the enticing raspberry and blackberry aromas in this wine. The palate is plush and rounded, filled out by juicy berry flavors that are framed by gentle tannins and lifted acidity. This is a young, fresh, easygoing wine that will please many with its accessible style. — A.P.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!