Wines from Puglia, Italy

The dilemma for producers


On a recent trip to Puglia, Italy, I was fortunate to taste through the wines of tens of producers. There was the usual range of styles -- modern to traditional, blockbuster to table wine -- as well as a full range of varieties.

I was familiar with some of the wines and most of the grape varieties but only one really surprised me. First, a little bit of background is probably in order.

3 Top Puglian Wines in the U.S. Market
Puglia, the heel of Italy, has long been a source of bulk wines; wines destined for local consumption, jug wines, or wines known as vino da taglio (“wines to cut”),  which ironically were used to improve many more famous, more expensive wines from northern Italy. As the Italian wine industry has come under stricter control, this sort of blending has been greatly diminished, and officially doesn’t occur at all. So, what is Puglia to do?

With an annual wine production that vies for first place each year with the regions of Sicily and the Veneto it is painfully obvious that Puglia must do something. Internationally regions such as Chile and Australia have stolen market share from Puglia as they have produced modern, clean wines at budget prices, the traditional market segment for most Puglian wines.

This has left Puglia with two options, though they seem to be gravitating to only one. The producers of Puglia can either move up-market, or produce wines that can compete with the best value wines in the world. Sadly from what I have seen, the tendency seems to be to try the first option, though it became painfully obvious during my tastings that they are better equipped to pursue the second!

But first I should temper my comments a bit. The truth of the matter is that by going up-market most of these producers seem to have gone down the route that has rewarded many other producers and regions with fame, money, and success; chiefly reducing yields and increasing the new oak their wines see. To what result one might ask? In my view, the results are plain to see: a loss of identity among many of the wines and a distinct shift in the character of the wines towards a rather anonymous, international style.

Yes, it can be argued that this path has proven to be successful, but I would argue that the marketplace is full of wines of this type today and we are at a turning point in this road. People are no longer gravitating toward the bigger is better mocha-choco-blueberry shake-style of wines. This is not to say that no-one is doing modern high-end Puglian wines well. Quite the contrary. A few of the producers I tried shocked me with the quality of their wines, but it was for a simple reason: they captured the essence of their most valuable asset.

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  • Snooth User: kme2010
    482454 14

    wet dog
    band aid
    beefy ... small fruits

    My three favorite takes from this edition.
    REALLY enjoyed the article and the reviews. Thanks.

    Jan 06, 2011 at 12:49 PM

  • Snooth User: clay hipp
    151940 1

    I quite agree that the second option is the preferred route--who is going to pay $40 for some of the wines you reviewed? But that is not the point. When you spoke individually for the many, i was one of those you spoke for. More and more I find myself craving (and drinking) the Cotes du Rhone vinted traditionally--with the grenache and cinsault playing center stage and tasting of the minerals of the soil in Rasteau (rather than the bright-big taste of a syrah-dominated new world version) or the grenache/carignan blend of a cooperative in Priorat( rather than the boutique bottle containing significant doses of cabernet/merlot).
    I recently chose the wines for a Christmas feast for a friend of Italian heritage--the wines were all Southern Italian and all under 10.00--the reviews were stunning!!

    Jan 06, 2011 at 4:21 PM

  • Snooth User: howie2
    Hand of Snooth
    419724 9

    Have to half disagree here. Puglia offers both great top notch wines and great value at the lower end,you just have to know where to look and not just go to journalist tastings. Primitivo, Negroamarao, Nero dio Troia and Salice Salentino are all wonderful wines when done properly. It is similar to Siciilia in many ways. Although I am Piemonte biased, Piemonte wines are often higher than average price and both Puglia and Sicilia offer great value alternatives, as well top notch wines from good producers whowish to follow the local / traditional and not international tastes!! And not sure Aglianico is a true Puglian grape, it belongs in Basilicata or Campania!!

    Jan 06, 2011 at 5:07 PM

  • Snooth User: Bob Fyke
    Hand of Snooth
    141389 54,000

    Great article Greg. Many key points that relate to all wine and not just Puglia. Let's hope more producers start aiming for that value target and give us wines that stand out, from the homoginized pack, as wines of place. Thanks for the insights on Nero di Troia. Can't wait to try it for myself.

    Jan 06, 2011 at 5:12 PM

  • Snooth User: james11
    Hand of Snooth
    349281 4

    Greg, you pretty much have pointed out ‘what right and what’s wrong’ with Puglian wines today.

    Unfortunately, the leading Italian wine guide continues to be in love with wines that show high notes of barrique. I think the over-the-top wines you encountered are made to proof the point that Puglian winemakers are capable of producing ‘point wines' too. Let’s hope, your comments on this subject will start a discussion among the winemakers.

    In regards to your excellent review of Cefalicchio’s 100% Nero di Troia ‘Romanico’ 2005 it should be noted that this estate is also certified 100% biodynamic. Actually, Fabrizo Rossi, the winemaker, is one of the leading experts in this field. IMHO, your review reveals that it is possible to make great organic red wines that not only age beautifully but continue to evolve and gain complexity. I will never understand why quite a number of wine writers often look the other way when an organic wine shows signs of ‘funkiness’. I maintain, one has nothing to do with the other; a ‘funky organic wine’ was produced by a wineries that used to made ‘funky normal wines’.

    Another interesting fact about this estate: A couple years ago, a very impressive looking solar power plant was installed in the middle of one of their vineyards. The plant generates more power than is needed to supply their hotel, spa, own restaurant and winery with all the power needs throughout the entire year. Talking about being carbon neutral.

    It looks like you didn’t taste Cefalicchio’s ‘Daily Drinking Wine’, called Cefalicchio Rosso. It’s a blend of 65% Nero di Troia and 35% Montepulicano and retails for about $15.00 to $18.75. Both wines, Romanico Riserva 2005 and Rosso 2007, arrived in our warehouse just two weeks ago. You couldn’t have planned the publication of this interesting article any better: We actually started to taste the very first restaurants clients on both wines TODAY!

    James Koch, JK Imports

    Jan 06, 2011 at 9:05 PM

  • Snooth User: bruce84
    702330 3

    Good article but I am a bit confused. Never heard of Nero di Troia. Is it related to Nero d'Avola, the great Sicilian red? Also I have always thought of Aglianco as a grape indigenous to Basilicata.
    I lived in Italy for 5 years and share you views on the amazing range of red grapes in Southern Italy. They all make some stunning wines. Final question- is Primitivo the cousin of the Californian Zinfindel?

    Jan 07, 2011 at 6:35 AM

  • Snooth User: TerreFedericianeSrl
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    674987 53

    Bruce84, regarding your question about the Nero di Troia and the Nero d'Avola, they do not have any connection. Just a similar name. "Nero" in Italian means "black", so the grapes are called in this way to highlight the fact that they produce very dark red wines (they seem black at sight). The second part of the names, instead, refers to the places of origin of the grapes. Avola is a town near Syracuse, and Troia is the Italian for Troy (the ancient city on the coast of Turkey, where the famous war between Greeks and Trojans took place). The legend says that an hero fleeing in Italy after the fall of Troy, took with him the Nero di Troia grapes. Besides, I have to say that in the North of Puglia, there is a small town named Troia, just in the area where these grapes are cultivated, so sometimes you may find a little bit of confusion about the true origin of the name. Anyway, according the the studies of the characteristics of the grape, the middle-eastern origin is more confirmed. While, regarding the question about the Zinfadel, I heard of a research from the genetist Carole Meredith (University of California) that established a Croatian origin for both the Zinfadel and the Primitivo. So they were taken from Croatia, to Italy, and then to California (but I'm not completely sure about this reconstruction). Anyway hey are genetically equivalent, so I think we can say that they are twins, not cousins. Gregory correct me, if I'm wrong. By the way, I wish to thank you Gregory, for the appreciations of our Dragonara and for the interesting article relating the Puglian productions.

    Jan 11, 2011 at 11:05 PM

  • Snooth User: Bassethorn
    342984 10

    You speak sooth. Let's protest the rise and rise of big breasted, jammy 15+% alcohol reds with loads of American oak, costing loads of dollars and all tasting the same. And I speak with feeling from my perspective in Australia, because that's what's happening here. Surely we don't really want to keep the world in the dark that Australia, like anywhere else, can produce sensational, individually unique wines reflecting the many and varied terroirs we have. No wonder Australian wine equals either cheap plonk, or generic blockbuster reds througout the world. Why bother with either, when we should be showing off what our hundreds of dedicated regional artist vignerons can do with their particular patches of grapes?

    Jan 12, 2011 at 1:30 AM

  • Hello Greg. I am with Howie2. I have to half disagree with you.
    First of all, I honestly cannot stand and drink wines that don't taste like "wine" anymore....but just like oak. So I am a big fan of wineries that use very little oak or that only use NOT-new French oak.
    I have to say that, being from Puglia, I know MANY wineries that make very elegant wines without using any oak at all, or using old French oak for a very few months (3 months). I organize wine tours in Puglia and this is also what my guests (mostly Americans) appreciate a lot.
    Most of these wines range between 5 and 15 euro (at the winery). Some of them are even 2 red glasses winners.
    So after reading your article and knowing the event you attended in Puglia, my question is: was this event representative of Puglia wines?
    I saw the list of wineries at the event and not all of them were there.
    Also, I think they were allowed to present only 2 bottles per winery.
    Perhaps wineries just presented those bottles (with wine aged in American oak) wrongly "assuming" that American buyers & journalists would have appreciated this kind of taste.
    Again, all the wineries I know are very proud of making elegant and not expensive wines the field....more than in the cellar.

    Jan 18, 2011 at 12:01 PM

  • Snooth User: hnachaj
    740601 8

    The Riserva Salice Salentino 2006 that is not reviewed here is a great wine at an affordable price ($17.75 Cdn at our provincial inflated pricing, around 6E in Italy!). Of the largest wineries and among the oldest, Conte Leone di Castris produces some 2 million bottles including many white wines.

    Jan 22, 2011 at 3:49 PM

  • Salice Salentino Riserva is a good tip hnachaj. Many happy memories of the vintages produced by Candido, who do Duca D'Aragone also, before our local retailer went bust

    Mar 11, 2011 at 7:28 AM

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