Apulia (also called Puglia) is the region that makes up the southeast corner of Italy including the heel of the boot of Italy. Historically, Apulia has been a very large producer of wine often leading Italy in terms of quantity of wine produced. The wines produced there were rugged, rough and deeply colored, and not of high quality. Much of the production went into cheaper jug wines or was blended into generic wines. Often, the wines were scandalously blended into wines from the more premier wines of the north giving those wines deeper color and a bit of texture. Nevertheless, the locals liked their local wines. These wines, however, were rarely tasted outside their homeland as a serious individual bottle of wine.
Apulia has 25 DOC’s (there are no DOCG’s). Yet, only about 2 percent of the wine produced meets DOC standards. Perhaps the best know of the wines is the DOC Salice Salentino. It is pronounced SAH-le-chay Sahl-ehn-TEEN-oh, named after a small community made up mostly of vineyards and olive orchards on the Salento peninsula. It is relatively flat region making up the southern half of Apulia and forming the heel of the boot, sandwiched between the Adriatic and Ionian seas.
Salice Salentino also comes in sweet red, rosé, white, sweet white and sparkling versions. It is the red that is the subject of this article though as the other wines rarely are seen. The basic reds have no ageing requirements, but the Riservas require 24 months of ageing before being released.
The major red grape of these wines is Negroamaro, which has been planted in Apulia at least since the sixth century B.C. Originally called niuru maru in the local dialect; the name translates to black and bitter. The grape is thick skinned and has a deep black and purple coloring although the wines tend to be deeply colored with just a hint of ruby near the rim. As its name implies, there is a pleasant bitter quality. It can also be exceedingly tannic. DOC regulations allow for the addition of twenty percent Malvasia Nera grapes, which soften the wine’s tannins and add some aromatic qualities. These grapes are labeled as either Malvasia nera di Brindisi and/or Malvasia nera di Lecce depending on where they are grown but genetically they are almost exactly the same. The ancient Greeks first brought Malvasia grapes to Apulia.
Salice Salentino “fame” if any, stems from a winery called Taurino, which was founded in 1972 by the late Dr. Cosimo Taurino. Now run by his wife, son and daughter, they are still regarded as one of, if not the top winery, in the area. With the success of Taurino and the general acknowledgement of the wine potential in southern Italy and specifically a growing interest in the Negroamaro grape, the 1980’s and 1990’s saw an increase in both producers and exports of wine in Apulia. The timing was good as it coincided with the awakening of much of Italy’s wine industry to better viticultural practices in the vineyard and more attention to winemaking detail in the winery.
Unlike much of northern and central Italy where there is a dichotomy between traditional and modernist producers, the Apulian fine wine industry is really in its infancy. There are no traditional producers making Salice Salentino, at least none worth drinking. All the producers seem to have the same goal of making well-crafted wines that show their sense of place. There is a sense of regional pride in what Apulia has been able to accomplish in a relatively short time.
Taurino produces a variety of wines including a Salice Salentino. Their Riservas bottlings are available for around $10. Besides Taurino, there are other good producers to look for. Leone de Castris is the other large producers in the region. They make quite a few wines ranging from internationally styled reds to the simpler Salice Salentino. At around $10, it is very satisfying. However, Castris also make a “super” Salice Salentino called Donna Lisa. Selling for around $35, this is a serious wine that can benefit from some mid-term cellaring. It offers a glimpse at what can be accomplished with Negroamaro.
Francesco Candido makes a very nice wine that is also available for around $10 for the Riserva. Agricole Vallone makes one of the best wines out there and is “pricey” by these terms at $13 a bottle. Also at around $13 a bottle Castello Monaci is another producer whose reds are starting to attract attention. Apollonio is an additional producer to look for. In addition, most producers make wines from one of Apulia’s other DOC’s and also IGT wines as well. While not the subject of this article, these are usually either some combination of Negroamaro or Malvasia, or possibly Primitivo, and are worth enjoying, especially if found for under $15.
The wines of Salice Salentino are fruit forward. They have a bit of spice to them and a bit of sweetness from the ripeness of the fruit with lots of lush cherry and red berry flavors. They are easy to drink and not wines that require contemplation. The next best thing about them is that they are inexpensive. Except for some of the few luxury bottlings, most are available for under $15.
The climate in Apulia is quite steady and vintages matter less here than in other places. When looking for wines, try to pick one that is not too old. The wines, for the most part are meant to be drunk within the first five to seven years of the vintage. As for foods that pair well with them, the local foods of Apulia consist of pastas of all kinds. Stews are also a popular way to stretch out the meat budget. These wines will go well with those. Don’t be afraid to also serve these at your summer cookouts either. They will go great with burgers and dogs or ribs.
I hope you all try a bottle and let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.