The winery of the world
How Puglia became the bulk wine capital.
Illustrations: Marian F. Moratinos
Wednesday 25 May 2022
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He may be a newcomer to the Pugliese wine scene but Giovanni Aiello of Chakra, an independent winery in Castellana Grotte, is keenly aware of what’s come before him. Chakra’s first vintage was in 2015, a tiny run of 600 bottles of Chakra Rosso, a full-bodied red made with 100 per cent Primitivo grapes. He’s since expanded the Chakra range to include a rosé and three whites, some single variety, some blends.
Giovanni’s inspiration is his region’s remarkable wine heritage, both the good times and the bad.
“Puglia was one of the first wine regions in Europe,” he says. “We have a 2,800-year history of wine production. But in the last century it was almost destroyed.”
To understand the existential threat that faced Puglia’s winemakers in the mid-20th century that Giovanni is talking about, we have to go back a bit first. A long way back.
It was the Ancient Greeks who first brought wine and winemaking to this region in the ‘heel’ of Italy’s ‘boot’ in the 8th century BC, importing a wine culture that included everything from cultivation techniques and grape varieties to drinking vessels. The Greeks persuaded the locals to eschew their previous fermented beverage of choice - a ‘grog’ of some kind, according to Dr Patrick E. McGovern, head of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.
It’s hard to be specific about the ingredients of such a drink but Dr Pat’s analysis of beverage containers found at ancient grave sites in other parts of the Mediterranean and Central Asia suggests a blend of fermented barley, honey, the juice of wild grapes or other fruits, tree resin, herbs and spices. In some places these ancient people might even have put grated goats cheese on top. It’s not all that surprising, then, to find that wine went down well with the locals when it arrived in Puglia.
The Greeks didn’t invent winemaking – the earliest evidence of wine as we know it, dating way back to 5,400 BC, was found in a mountainous region of central Asia that is now Iran. But they did play an important role in exporting viticulture around the Mediterranean, including Italy.
Evidence of this can be found in Puglia’s wine industry to this day, with some vines still being grown using the traditional albarello method, which involves pruning them into individual bushes rather than training them along trellises. At least two of Puglia’s supposedly native grapes – Negroamaro and Nero di Troia – are thought to have been brought over by the Greeks.
What the Greeks began, the Romans ran with, turning Puglia – along with plenty of their other territory on the Italian mainland – into a wine powerhouse. Wine produced in Puglia would have been enjoyed throughout the Roman Empire, with amphorae shipped from Brindisi and Bari.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Puglia changed hands many times, with Ostrogoths giving way to Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, the Holy Roman Emperor, the French, the Spanish and the Ottomans until in 1861 the region joined the new Kingdom of Italy. It’s around this time that we see the next big twist in the tale of Pugliese winemaking: the arrival in Europe of an American grape vine pest called phylloxera.
Phylloxera rampaged through the vineyards of France in the second half of the 19th century, wiping out all but a tiny proportion of wine production there. It was Pugliese wines, still at that point unaffected by this aphid-like pest, that helped to keep the French wine industry afloat in this period, its reds sent across the Med to bulk out French vintages.
By the time phylloxera reached southern Italy towards the end of the 19th century, the wine industry had found a work-around: grafting vulnerable European grape varieties onto phylloxera-resistant American root stock. Even so, the pest decimated Pugliese vineyards just as it had done everywhere else in Europe. This created the right conditions for a new era of wine making in the region: the rise of the northern Italian super producers.
In the southern part of Puglia, Tuscan and Piedmont winemakers bought vast quantities of Primitivo and Negroamaro grapes, must and wine to transport north to bulk out their own production, itself recovering from the impact of phylloxera. Bulk export of red wines to France also continued. Meanwhile in the white grape regions of northern Puglia, northern Italian vermouth manufacturers such as Martini Rossi dominated the country’s wine economy.
It’s nigh on impossible to find accurate figures for the volume of wine being exported from Puglia in this period, but Marina Saponari, a trained sommelier who has worked in the Puglia food and wine business for decades and now runs the cooking school Dire Fare Gustare, estimates that by the 1950s, the region was responsible for around 70 per cent of Italy’s total wine production, with even more exported elsewhere in Europe. “It was the winery of the world,” she says.
By the 1950s, the region was responsible for around 70 per cent of Italy’s total wine production
Northern and overseas producers embraced Pugliese wines so enthusiastically, says Marina, because the characteristics of the region’s native grape varieties – Primitivo and Negroamaro in particular – tick a lot of boxes for blending. Consistently hot temperatures, tempered by cooler nights thanks to vineyards’ proximity to the sea (Puglia’s coastline is longer than that of any other region in Italy), create “wonderful red wines with high sugar, very strong colour and body,” Marina explains.
“So if a Bordeaux wine in one vintage didn’t achieve the alcohol, the colour or the structure, they could use our stronger body wines in blend to help.”
The nature of the agricultural economy in Puglia in the first half of the 20th century was also favourable to the bulk wine phenomenon, with small-scale, often very impoverished, growers relieved to be able to sell their entire harvests to the big northern wineries and guarantee an income.
The trouble was, it couldn’t last. Tastes changed – in particular following the introduction of Italy’s wine classification system in 1963, which saw wine sorted according to its origins and quality – and northern winemakers lost their appetite for Pugliese bulk wine.
It’s here where we return to Giovanni Aiello’s point about the near destruction of the industry. For starters, producing wine for bulk removed any incentive among local growers to create bottle-quality wine. Then, when the big northern producers left, there was such a steep drop in prices that many growers felt they had no choice but to dig up their vineyards and plant higher value crops instead - cherries and almonds in the case of Giovanni’s Valle d’Itria home.
“To see the land without vineyards is...”, he trails off, shaking his head sadly.
“I’ve come to do my small part – to try to bottle the best of my land.”
Bulk, also known as table wine, is still an important part of the Pugliese wine economy, accounting for some 40 per cent of total production, estimates Stefano Garofano, of Garofano, a winery in the province of Lecce. Puglia is the second largest producer of wine in Italy by region, beaten only by Veneto, the land of Prosecco, in terms of volume produced.
But alongside the bulk industry, there is now a growing – and increasingly well regarded – bottled wine sector, with independent local wineries like Giovanni’s and Stefano’s reaping the rewards of a refocusing on quality over quantity.
“[Bulk and bottle] are different markets with different philosophies,” says Stefano.
Informing the philosophy of bottled wine is a long-overdue reappraisal, says Giovanni, among Pugliese winemakers, of the potential of the region’s wine industry:
“In the last 20 years, we’ve started to believe in ourselves. If you consider that they bought wine from Puglia for blending with the best wine in Northern Italy and France – they used our wine to help the other wine! – then probably what we produce is good.”
Investment has also been key, with winemakers putting money into training and technology, both in the vineyard and the winery. It’s certainly paying dividends, says Federica Zanghirella, vice president of the UK Sommelier Association.
“Local producers realised that quality pays, opening up to profitable markets all over the world,” she says. “It started as a business strategy - now it is something to be proud of.”
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