Oenotria, ‘Land of Wine’. This is the name the ancient Greeks gave to Puglia. 425 km long, Puglia has a diverse agricultural landscape with mountains, plains, the Mediterranean sun, coastal sea breezes and fertile soil. The climate is hot and dry, especially during the summer months. The name Puglia comes from the Latin ‘a pluvia’ meaning without rain. These environmental features, plus the presence of vitigni autoctoni (Native or Indigenous species of grapes) provide an ideal environment for growing grapes and producing vino.
Grape harvesting and winemaking are an ancient tradition in Puglia, where the soil has been tilled for centuries. The vines are deeply rooted to an ancestral bond with the earth and local traditions. I find the surreal peace and tranquility in the vigneti to be very therapeutic and meditative.
The history of vinicoltura in Puglia is based on a bit of science, and a lot of legend. According to legend, after the fall of Troy the mythical hero Diomede (Diomedes) found out his wife had been unfaithful. Instead of returning home to Argos, he sailed about the Adriatic, created the Isole Tremiti, and then was invited by Daunus, King of the Daunia (modern Provincia di Foggia) to settle there. Diomede allegedly planted the first vines in Puglia, brought with him from Greece and beyond.
Vino Pugliese has always been consumed and enjoyed locally. In the past, Pugliese grapes were often harvested for quantity rather than quality. They were used to blend with underwhelming Italian and European grapes that needed substance or a boost in the alcohol content. In Puglia, grapes develop high levels of sugar over the hot summer, resulting in wines that are high in alcohol. Mass production decreased the value of Pugliese grapes and wine. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, government funds were available for contadini to plant wheat. Half of Puglia’s ancient vigneti/vineyards were cut down to make way for fields of wheat. Some ancient vines were all but lost. Now many are being replanted and there has been a resurgence of forgotten native grapes and lesser known grapes. Vini Pugliese are finally getting the love they deserve! There are now over 30 Pugliese DOC wines and they are generally very well priced for the quality. I still say the best stuff doesn’t leave the region. It is made in batches too small to export and is consumed locally.
Puglia can be roughly divided into 3 wine producing areas. The first is Northern Puglia including the Daunia (Provincia di Foggia) and the northern part of the Provincia di Bari, around Castel del Monte. The second is the Provincia di Bari including Gioia del Colle and the Val d’Itria and the third is the Salento area or the ‘heel’ of italia. It includes the Provincia di Lecce, most of the Provincia di Brindisi and part of the Provincia di Taranto. (I will add a map soon)
This is the first of 3 blog posts about Puglia and its native vines. I have been conducting my own personal research on this topic for many years. The sacrifices I make for my readers knows no limits!
This post will include the 3 main grapes, Primitivo, Negroamaro and Nero di Troia. Post number 2 Aglianico to Zibibbo will feature the lesser known vigni autoctoni and a wine vocabulary, and post number 3 will be dedicated to Tuccanese. Salute!
3 Main Vitigni Pugliese/Grapevines:
Primitivo is the most internationally well-known Pugliese grape. It is grown across Puglia, especially in Taranto (Primitivo di Manduria) and the Gioia del Colle area in Bari. The production of Primitivo has increased in recent years. The name was given by a late 18th Century monk who studied botany. It does not mean primitive, but comes from the Latin ‘Primatirus’ which means early ripening. La vendemmia (the grape harvest) for Primitivo is August to early September. It was previously known by other names, including Zagarese, possibly meaning from Zagreb. In 1881, Primitivo vines were first brought to Manduria from Gioia del Colle as part of the dowry of Contessa Sabini di Altamura. Including vines in a dowry may sound strange, but also implies they must have been considered valuable!
Primitivo is ‘corposo’ (full bodied) and has lots of anthocyanins. The grape can turn much of its sugar content into alcohol, reaching up to 18% alcohol! It is aromatic with hints of sour and black cherry, fig, blueberry and blackberry. Primitivo has a spiciness of pepper and licorice when grown in certain types of soil and it is often aged in oak. Not a productive vine, it gives low to medium yields. Primitivo ripens unevenly and will over ripen quickly. If the tips are pruned in spring, a second harvest with a lower alcohol content is possible mid September to October. In Manduria, Primitivo grows on red soil. It is also grown on volcanic soil, and even sand near the sea.
Primitivo arrived in Puglia from across the Adriatic thousands of years ago with the ancient Greeks. It may have crossed the Adriatic again in the 15th Century with Slavs and Greek Albanians arriving in Puglia to seek refuge from the Ottoman Turks.
Like all Italians, Primitivo has cugini, or cousins. Zinfandel has been proven by genetic analysis to be a clone of Primitivo and Crljenak Kastelanskj (Plavina) a vine on the coast and islands of Croatia. Pugliese immigrants in the 1800’s and early 1900’s likely brought their native grapes to California. Primitivo is also one of the parents of Plavac Mali, another Croatian grape.
Negroamaro is grown almost exclusively in Puglia and is one of Italia’s most ancient vines. It is grown all over Puglia, but especially in the Salento, the ‘heel’ of Puglia. Since ‘niger’ is Latin for black and ‘amaro’ means bitter in Italiano, the name is thought to mean ‘Black bitter’, after its strong colour and tannins. The amaro part of Negroamaro is actually from ‘Mavros’ the Greek word for black. In this case, Negroamaro actually means ‘black black’. It is thought to have been brought to Puglia by Greek colonists around the 8th Century BC so it makes sense that the grape developed a hybrid Latin/Greek name.
Puglia is an ideal habitat for Negroamaro grapes as they tolerate hot and dry well, and are very adaptable to different soils, even in rocky areas. Negroamaro has a rich dark red colour and is corposo but not too tannic or acidic, making it very easy to drink! It has flavours of ripe plums and baked raspberries with hints of cinnamon and anise, and is rich in polyphenols including the antioxidant resveratrol. La vendemmia for Negroamaro is after Sept 10 to the beginning of October. Negroamaro is usually used on its own, or blended with Malvasia Nera. The first rosé bottled in italia in 1943 was a Negroamaro rosé. My favourite Italian rock band is Negramaro without the ‘o’, from Lecce. I recommend listening to Negramaro with a glass of Negroamaro!
Nero di Troia (also called Uva di Troia) is named after and grown around Troia, in the Monti Dauni area of Foggia and near Castel del Monte. Troia is only 14 km from Orsara di Puglia so I know it well! Nero di Troia is thought to be those very vines brought by Diomedes from Troy when he was welcomed by the king of the Daunia! Genetic analysis does show it originates in the Adriatic area. We also know Nero di Troia was around in the 13th century during the reign of Federico II of Svevia.
Nero di Troia is a late ripening grape, with vendemmia in mid to late October. It is very purple skinned, rich in polyphenols and especially tannins but is not too acidic or tannic tasting. It has a spiced woody taste with hints of blackberry, licorice, cherry, black currant, black pepper and violets. Nero di Troia goes down nicely and leaves a silky feel on the palate. Traditionally it has been blended with other grapes. For example, Castel del Monte wines blend 75% Nero di Troia with 25% Montepulciano. In recent years, there has been a move towards appreciating the unique characteristics of Nero di Troia on its own and it is becoming increasingly well-known and appreciated.
In Orsara Papà often buys Nero di Troia to drink at home with meals. It comes in a 3L plastic bottle at the grocery store for €5.50! Seriously. It has an expiry date and he transfers it into 4x 750 ml glass bottles. It may not be the best Nero di Troia available, but it’s very good and the best value for $. Now you all know for sure I am not a wine snob! Visit Troia the last Sunday in July for ‘La notte del Nero di Troia’. Maybe I’ll see you there? Salute!
Read the rest of the trilogy: