Indigenous grapes of Puglia
Bitter black? Ah, that’ll be Negroamaro.
Photograph: Julius Yls
Wednesday 25 May 2022
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Let’s start our tasting of indigenous Pugliese grapes with a big one—Primitivo. The dark skin and sugary flesh of this well-loved workhorse of a grape crafts deliciously deep wines in the right hands, offering jammy red fruits and a tart cherry flavour that lingers on the tongue. You’ll perhaps know this tannic, high-alcohol wine under a different name and from a different part of the world altogether—Zinfandel.
For a taste of true Puglia, get your hands on a glass of Negroamaro. Translated, this grape’s name literally means “black bitter”, and this touch of bitterness, once you’re acclimatised, becomes quite addictive. This grape has a thick skin which protects it from the worst of the sun, but it gives soft tannins and a range of aromatics you might not expect: tobacco, bundles of herbs, a fresh grinding of black pepper, a slick of raspberry coulis. In Puglia, you’ll often find Negroamaro as a refreshing rosé too, packed with strawberry flavours and aromas of wild flowers.
In the flat Salento region right on the tip of Puglia, there are eight places where Negroamaro is grown in DOCs, mainly within the Lecce and Brindisi areas. The grapes are often grown in “goblet” vines, which is a style of training a grape vine to stand without a trellis. As well as looking really cool, this helps to retain more moisture in the vine and also protects the grapes from the sun with extra foliage. If you’re ever on holiday to Puglia, look out for these vineyards on road trips and on hillsides—it’s a fascinating and historic way of cultivating grapes.
Verdeca is a rareish white wine these days owing to its fairly neutral flavour, and it’s not easy to find in your average supermarket. However, this grape is still grown in Puglia mainly as a blending grape, and is drunk as a single variety in Puglia as a refreshing table wine spiked with aromatic citrus fruits.
The long coast of Puglia was once home to many vineyards growing Bombino Bianco, and according to Oz Clarke’s Encyclopedia of Grapes, it is also called Debit here, because of its high-yields and therefore its ability to wipe out a winemaker’s debts for the year. Nowadays it’s used in making vermouth and table wines, and raisins.
In the northern areas of Puglia, Nero di Troia is grown for its acidity and tannins, as well as its hefty yields. Used primarily as a blending grape, you can find single varietal vintages of this grape, which tend to be rich in fruit flavours and violet aroma, and are surprisingly fresh and great for drinking (as in, don’t feel you have to cook a leg of lamb to eat alongside it. It’s perfectly good alone or with a bag of fancy crisps).
Ancient Susumaniello is from the southernmost tip of Puglia, in Brindisi. It is only found here, and is mainly used for blending. Likewise, Notardomenico has been part of the Puglian agricultural landscape for hundreds of years, if not thousands, and is generally a friend of Ottavianello with which it’s usually blended (but which is not strictly an indigenous grape as it’s other name is Cinsault, which you may recognise from France). However you probably won’t get to drink Notardomenico alone as it’s never usually vinified as a single variety wine.
There are a number of Malvasia varieties planted throughout Italy, brought to Greece by the ancient Greeks. Malvasia Nera di Lecce and Malvasia Nera di Brindisi are, as their names suggest, highly regional to specific areas of Puglia. They were always believed to be related, and DNA testing shows they are, in fact, probably identical—but the fun thing is, they are totally different in character. Vignerons in both regions who grow these grapes see distinct differences between the two: according to Wine Searcher, the di Lecce varietal has less prominent aromatics; the di Brindisi is a smaller grape that ripens up to two weeks earlier than its “identical” relation. Isn’t wine so interesting?
Puglia is famous for its deep, bold red wines and so another Primitivo variety was surely always going to be on the cards. Enter Primitivo di Manduria, a grape with a dark coloured skin that gives intense flavour and strong tannins. This means that it is a fantastic grape to blend into less formidable wines to give them more structure and poise, and it ages well too. On the flipside, it can be blended with other grapes to quieten it down, and soften it around the edges. The same goes for aging—aging Primitivo of any description can sometimes be a necessity to give the wine time to smooth out those forceful tannins before they reach the shelves.
Another Bombino for your mental collection, Bombino Nero is a small, spherical grape that most ampelographers (botanists who focus on grape vines) now believe originated in Puglia. It makes a lovely, light-bodied and fresh fruit-filled rosé later on in the harvest season, thanks to its deep colour that means it doesn’t need to be left on the skins for long in order to become a lush, pinky-red gemstone colour. The red wines it produces are also light-bodied, making it an unusual grape for this region. Don’t you love a rebel?
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