In the Land of Plenty
N ever be afraid to taste the fruit in the field, before you whiff the wine from the glass. How else to taste the evolution of grape to wine?
This time, I was also tasting all the other things growing alongside the dirt road that ran the length of Torrevento Winery’s farm, which like many others here in Puglia, the heel of the boot of southern Italy, grew an abundance of produce in addition to the grapes.
I reach for an olive off an olive tree. I learn very quickly that there are olives meant for eating, and then there are olives grown for oil.
Bitter! Olives grown for their oil are the epitome of bitter. I spit. I nibble on the dark greens in low rows to absorb the poison. I study the leaves. Was it arugula?
Several men on horses ride by slowly as we walk further afield. We are a chatty Belge, a whip-smart German, an intense Brit, a social American, a diligent Singaporean deathly afraid of getting sun on her face – because of vanity she tells me later – and a laidback Brazilian. I was the full-farm taster Canadian. As wine writers and journalists, we were here to learn the new story of Puglia, long known for bulk wines and clandestine additions to beef up other more famous reds. We get along so well we spontaneously take turns marvelling over this fact during “light” lunches – that sometimes lasted four hours over multiple courses – and delicious dinners that unfolded sweetly, slowly, abundantly, like a warm summer’s night.
The noon sun shines brightly, hotly on my shoulders and I remove the sweater that had kept me at just the right Goldilocks temperature in the early morn – not too warm, not too cold. Just as I tie the sleeves around my waist, and adjust my bag over my shoulders, we are upon them. The black grapes I’d been asking to taste, still hanging on the vines this last week of October. The grape I would fall in love with for its elegance and finesse when tended with care, ripened fully, and coaxed into a sumptuous red wine. When aged in local chestnut barrels, the wine acquired a layered complexity with subtlety. A gentleman with tinges of silver in his hair and a good dose of sexy in the way he carried himself.
Nero di Troia is its name, and it is one of three red wine grapes for which this long and narrow stretch of wine country is known, though still unknown to many.
Although Puglia produces the largest volume of wine in ALL of Italy, it’s not a wine region that’s written or talked about much. Probably, it’s because less than five per cent of Puglia’s wines are at the DOC and DOCG quality level. Nature and history conspired to make this so.
Broad plains, low-lying hills, and a warm Mediterranean climate mark this land of plenty. Plenty of organic agriculture, plenty of tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, figs, almonds, and of course, plenty of grapes. Bordered by two seas, the Adriatic and the Ionian, vineyards abound along the 800 kilometres of coastline, flat and fertile – just the right ingredients for high-yielding viticulture and mass production of wine shipped out as base wine for vermouth and other distillates, and bulk blending in generic wines. After the devastation of vineyards across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by phylloxera, a louse that’s played villain in pretty much every wine story around the world, the plentiful grapes were fermented into bulk wine and shipped to France for decades. The export market resulted in an economic boom for Puglia, but it also led to the disappearance of many native grapes, which were replaced by more in-demand French varieties.
Today, Puglia’s narrative is of re-birth. A new focus on quality over quantity with lower yields in grape production. The efforts of wine producers to revive the dying native varieties are also bearing fruit. Over the past 15 years, Nero di Troia has become a shining example of what a native grape in Puglia can do as a stand-alone varietal wine. Smooth, characterful, and worthy of ageing.
“We were one of the first to make a wine with 100 per cent Nero di Troia,” says Andrea Fabiano of Torrevento Winery.
NERO DI TROIA: NERO D’ELEGANCE
“Don’t eat all the grapes,” jokes Fabiano after pointing me to the Nero di Troia vines.
The grape was sweet from ripeness, a burst of flavour on my tongue. Its skin was thick, chewy, and tannic. Much more tannic than any Cabernet Sauvignon grape I’d tasted straight off the vine.
Torrevento Winery is located at a higher elevation near the town of Corato, the more northerly section of Puglia, though nothing is really high in all of Puglia. It is the flattest of all wine regions in the country as well. But it’s in this northern swath of land surrounding the octagonal 13th century castle Castel del Monte that this black-skinned grape, named after its colour (nero), shows its best. It’s also where three of the four DOCG designations, the highest designation for quality Italian wine, were awarded the region only five years ago in 2011. Two of them, Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva DOCG and Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva DOCG, dictate that Nero di Troia be the dominant grape. (Castel del Monte Bombino Nero DOCG for rosé wines, called rosato in Italy, is the third).
Puglia has a long wine history that goes back 3000 years, when the area was populated by the Daunian, Peucetian, and Messapian peoples. But it was the period of Greek colonization in 8th century BC that saw the arrival of what are now considered native grapes to the region.
Legend had it that Diomedes, a Greek hero of the Trojan War, brought cuttings of Nero di Troia from the city of Troy (Troia) in Asia Minor. The fugitives from the destruction of Homer’s mythical city of Troy landed on the banks of the Ofanto River and planted them. Perhaps they just couldn’t imagine a life without their preferred nectar of the gods?
No need to ponder. These days, we have genetic testing, and no other living thing seems to undergo such detailed DNA analysis as wine grapes. It seems certain, says the Movimento Turismo del Vino Puglia, the regional office of the non-profit wine tourism organization, that the vine originated in the Adriatic Sea. Its name likely derived from the city of Troia in the province of Foggia, or even from the nearby Albanian coast from the small village of Cruj – just on the other side of the Adriatic – also called Troia in the local language.
Traditionally, Nero di Troia – also called Uva di Troia – was used as a blending grape. Rich in tannins and other polyphenols that give a wine grape lots of flavour, the tannins can be rough and overpowering when picked too early. Without modern vinification techniques to soften the tannins, it was blended with softer grapes like Montelpuciano. Today, it produces some of the most elegant wines I’ve tasted in all of Italy, let alone Puglia.
Nero di Troia Recommendations
When Nero di Troia grapes are left to ripen properly so that its harsh tannins become smooth, the resulting wines are savoury, well-balanced, and harmonious. Here are my recommendations.
Torrevento Vignale Pedale Riserva 2010 is a deep ruby colour with aromas of pencil shavings. It has bright acidity and medium soft tannins. If I could have brought a case of red wine home from Puglia, that case would be filled with this wine.
Torrevento Ottagono Riserva 2012 is deeper ruby still with a riper intensity, fuller body, and medium + tannins. Think of this wine as the Vignale Pedale on steroids. More in every way.
Rivera Winery has three I want to mention to you. Their Il Falcone Castel del Monte Riserva 2009 and Puer Apuliae Nero di Troia 2009 are their famous wines, but I preferred their lower tier Violante Nero di Troia 2012. The difference? This wine was just a little less. A partner, rather than THE star of the show. Depending on how you want to experience the wines, you have a trio of choices.
Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli is an amazing winery to visit. Huge cacti, a mysterious cellar, and a field of solar panels to support sustainable everything. The winery is run entirely on solar energy. The Spagnoletti family has a long history in Puglia that goes back to the 17th century. The famous castle Castel del Monte, after which three of the four DOCGs in Puglia are named, once even belonged to this family. Beautiful wines match the beautiful winery. And here, Dear Reader, I must be honest as I know not to be any other way. I can’t give detailed notes on any of the wines. We were outside in their lovely garden. So much said in Italian with so little translated into English. Then there was the “light” lunch, which was not light, but plentiful and delicious and convivial. The food was so appealing, the people so hospitable – I gave up on my notes to simply enjoy. I wasn’t tempted to taste the cacti.
Agricola Mazzone Filotorto Nero di Troia 2011 IGT: At dinner at La Bottega dell’Allegria in the town of Corato, a charming restaurant you’ll want to dine at, we sipped this easy drinking, well-balanced Nero di Troia.
ODE TO NEGROAMARO
“Can you take a picture of me?” I ask Marcus, the Brazilian. In front of us were a flight of stairs made with small, floating barrels not for show but to get from the ground floor of the winery to the second. A barrel for each step. Novelty is an addiction for a former news reporter, imprinted with the constant urge to seek out what’s new, interesting, useful or important to know. I wanted a photo.
We are in the southern stretch of Puglia now at Apollonio Winery, a family winery run by fourth-generation brothers Marcello and Massimiliano Apollonio since 1995. Here, they produce mostly aged wines fermented in a variety of oak. It’s where I made that memorable connection to Negroamaro that will keep me forever tied to the grape, the most widely planted wine grape throughout Puglia.
Negroamaro is one of Italy’s oldest grapes. It was most likely brought to the country by the Greeks and is also most likely named after the word black. Twice. Niger is the Latin word for black while mavros is of Greek origins. The resulting wines are indeed deep in colour with powerful tannins. When planted at high yields, they produce wines with plenty of alcohol, but little aroma, so can add colour and richness to other reds without being detectable. Whispers abound that Negroamaro was and perhaps still is used as a clandestine addition to bolster other more famous reds.
The best examples of the not-so-secret use of Negroamaro, however, are found in the south of Puglia in the Salento peninsula, where the climate is sunnier and drier. The appellation of Salice Salentino DOC is reputed to have the best red wines made of Negroamaro. Black fruit and tobacco characteristics dominate, and you can taste the sunshine in these wines.
But it’s not the memory of the reds that still linger on my tongue. It is the rosatos made with Negroamaro. Dry and refreshing, with a touch of savoury, this is the rosé you might sip all throughout the year. Many producers are now making them lighter in colour to match the expectations of those who are forever tied to the rosés of southern France (that would include me), but these rosés are generally darker in colour, a bright see-through red rather than the palest pink or salmon – the grape is called Black Black – but are usually fermented dry.
Rosé wines made with negroamaro have a long history. The very first rosé in Italy was made with Negroamaro in 1943.
I look down at my plate, the mess I’ve made. This being our first winery visit of the day, we did not have a “light” lunch, but platters of pastries. Eight different kinds. I glanced at everyone else’s plates. Evidently, I was also the only all-pastries taster. Later, at Moros Winery during our “light” lunch where platters of delicious food were spread out before us, my stomach ached. I didn’t know if it was from too much pastry sampling or the pang of not being able to fully enjoy the lunch by fully partaking.
Apollonio Elfo Rosato 2015: Made with 100 per cent Negroamaro, this is the wine I might have brought home two cases of. Medium salmon in colour with raspberries and strawberries on the nose. Dry, refreshing acid, saline and red berries on the palate. Very refreshing, more savoury than French rosés.
diciotto Fanali Salento Rosato 2013: What makes Apollonio unique is their method of fermenting grapes in wood for many of their wines, including this upper tier of rosé. Fermented in acacia wood and aged in French barriques, it was one of the most unique rosés I’d tasted. A wine you’d make something special to go with, because unlike the one above, it wouldn’t go with everything.
Consorzio Produttori Vini Manduria Leggiadro Brut Rose 2013 Spumante Salento: Such refreshing acidity, pale pink onion skin, red berries, dry, medium finish. This rosé bubbly is the wine I would have brought home THREE cases of. A pet project of the winemaker who wanted to try his hand at a sparkling wine made traditional method, it is absolutely beautiful.
Though I fell in love with rosés made with Negroamaro, here are the red wines made of the grape that stood out for me.
Moros Salice Salentino Rosso Riserva 2012: Made with 90 per cent negroamaro and 10 per cent malvasia, this wine is deep ruby in colour with spice on the nose and palate, medium plus acid, black cherries, and other black fruit. Grippy medium tannins.
Varviaglione Vigne & Vini 2 e mezzo Negroamaro del Salento 2014: Made in a more refreshing style with black fruit, and deep ruby in colour, of course.
Tormaresca‘s Masseria Maime Negroamaro Salento is their flagship negroamaro red you’ll want to try, but it was their everyday red blend Neprica dominated by Negroamaro that I would reach for over a late afternoon lunch.
REFRESHING FIANO FOR WARM MEDITERRANEAN DAYS
Primitivo is the last of the dominant trio of red wine grapes in Puglia, but it is not the grape I would write home about. Wine made from Primitivo, which is identical to Zinfandel in the US and Crljenak Kastelanski in Croatia, are to me, generally insipidly sweet from over-ripeness. There were exceptions of course, and the ones I enjoyed were consistently from the appellation of Primitivo di Manduria, also in the south of Puglia, where the fourth Puglian DOCG was designated, and I include a long list of recommendations at the end to give due diligence to the wines.
Instead, the third grape I crave when I think Puglia is a white wine grape called Fiano, especially to sip on warm Mediterranean days.
We were surprised that so few whites from native grapes were being made in such a warm, sunny region. Puglia’s food is seafood galore, which needs a refreshing white to go with.
There were, of course, the other white wine grapes: Bombino Bianco, Malvasia Bianca, and Minutolo. But it was always the Fiano that stood out for me. Crisp, light, and refreshing with high acidity. Dominated by citrus characteristics with more subtle almond notes.
Phylloxera almost eliminated Fiano from Italy, but it is now going through a renaissance of sorts, with new vineyards being planted north to south in the country. Originally from the neighbouring wine region of Campagnia to the west of Puglia, Fiano is now increasingly being made into a crisp white wine across all of Puglia. There are now a dozen Puglian producers who make white wines made of 100 per cent Fiano. I’m very glad about this. We didn’t try as many whites as reds during our stay in Puglia, but the refreshing Varvaglione Vigne & Vini Margrande Fiano del Salento IGP hit the perfect note as we gathered around the table, wine lovers from our respective corners of the world, over another “light” lunch.
A delicious trip in every way. Will be back, Puglia.
Shining examples of wines made with Primitivo grapes by three producers:
Amastuola Winery is one of the largest organic vineyards in Italy and they make absolutely beautiful wines. Their main grape variety is Primitivo and the Centosassi Primitivo is gorgeous as is the rest of their wines.
Varviglione Vigne & Vini Tatu Primitivo 2013: 90 per cent Primitivo, 10 per cent Aglianico. A big checkmark in my notebook.
Varviglione Vigne & Vini Papale Primitivo di Manduria 2013: Garnet in colour, rounded and smooth. To be drunk with meat. From very low yield grapes harvested from free-standing vines.
Consorzio Produttori Vini Manduria is a cooperative of wine producers representing about 200 families in the south of Puglia. What made this winery interesting was not just the wine and culture museum downstairs that held evidence of babies wrapped tightly in special contraptions leaving them unable to move and possibly to die, while parents toiled, presumably out in the fields, and the scariest-looking Bacchus-eating-grapes statue I’d ever seen, but a selection of Primitivos whose balance, complexity, and concentration were a real highlight.
Memoria Primitivo di Manduria 2013: Deep ruby, ripe black fruit balanced by high refreshing acid, medium tannins.
Sonetto Primitivo di Manduria Riserva 2011: Old vines, low yield. Unfiltered, spent two years in second-use barriques. Deep ruby in colour. Concentrated, dry, full body with ripe black fruit, medium + grippy tannins, and a long finish.
Elegia Primitivo di Manduria Riserva 2011: Deep ruby in colour, almost sour on the nose. Riper black berries – tastes almost off dry because of its ripeness but also its high residual sugar at 15 g/l, high grippy tannins, concentrated. All these extreme-sounding elements came together as a beautifully balanced wine.
PUGLIA IN PICTURES
Wineries to Visit
Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli contespagnolettizeuli.it
4 DOCG in Puglia since 2011
Castel del Monte Nero di Troia Riserva DOCG (red, Nero di Troia)
Castel del Monte Rosso Riserva DOCG (red, Nero di Troia)
Castel del Monte Bombino Nero DOCG (rosato)
Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale DOCG (red, Primitivo)
(The DOC to know – Salice Salentino for red wines made of Negroamaro)