First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 10th March, 2018
As the cold weather finally comes to an end, one last look at some full-on red wines guaranteed to blow away any lingering chill. On paper at least, Puglia (or Apulia if you prefer) has a lot going for it; some really good soils for growing grapes; a few interesting local grape varieties; and plenty of warm, dry sunny weather, tempered by cooling maritime winds.
And yet, for too long Puglia was a prime example of the problems that beset many European wine regions; a massive over-production of poor quality wine from large co-operatives, supplied by small farmers relying on handouts from the Italian government or the EU to survive.
Puglia is all about two liquids; olive oil and wine. The region produces nearly half of all Italian olive oil. It is also responsible for 700 million litres of wine, mostly red wine each year – that is over 930 million bottles of wine, although much never gets anywhere near a bottle.
In the past most of it was was distilled into industrial alcohol or used to make vermouth. Many locals would add that a lot was illegally shipped in tankers to be blended into wines from more famous regions further north.
In recent years, great efforts have been made to improve quality. As Puglia shakes off its reputation for huge over-alcoholic wines, we are starting to see more very impressive bottles, as well as a host of inexpensive wines that can compete with Chile, Australia and the Languedoc.
Some producers pick early to keep alcohol levels down – ripening grapes has never been an issue in the hot, sunny summers. Quality producers tend to be found at higher altitudes, where better soils are often found too.
Puglia is a narrow strip of land, some 425km long. It includes the stiletto heel of Italy and runs further up the calf, along the east coast. The two best-known grapes are Primitivo and Negroamaro. Primitivo is better known as California’s Zinfandel. In Puglia, the wine is typically big and powerful and loaded with ripe dark fruits. Those maritime winds help preserve Primitvo’s natural acidity. Negroamaro (the name means “black bitter”) can be equally big, with soft baked red fruits and spice, but generally the wines lack the acidic bite that makes Primitivo so attractive. A third main local variety (there are many others too, as well as international varieties), Nero di Troia, has generated a lot of interest in recent years.
Looking around the multiples, many seemed to concentrate on appassimento wines (see last week’s column) from Puglia. In addition to the wines below, SuperValu offer a decent Primitivo and a Negromaro for €11.99 under the Intrigo label.
Grifone Primitivo 2016, IGT Puglia 13%, €9.99
A very gluggable juicy red wine, with abundant dark forest fruits and a dry finish. One to drink alongside herby braised red meats or spicy Mexican foods.
Stockists Spar, Eurospar, Mace and Londis.
Le Vigne di Sammarco, Pimitivo di Manduria 2016 14%, €15.90
Textured, expansive, spice-laden big bold black fruits, with nicely integrated tannins and good length. Match it with grilled red meats; a rib-eye sounds about right.
Stockists Wines Direct, Mullingar & Arnott’s, winesdirect.ie
Tenute Rubino Punta Aquila Primitivo 2014, IGT Salento 14.5%, €18.95
An explosion of delicious smooth sun-kissed dark fruits. Rounded and supple, with plenty of power, this should be drunk with rich stews or pasta with long-simmered meaty tomato sauces.
Vibrans Nero di Troia 2015, Caiaffa, Puglia 14%, €20
Brooding full-bodied wine with layer after layer of smooth, ripe dark forest fruits. Robust dishes required here; pasta in a rich tomato sauce, possibly with some spicy n’duja?
Stockists: Lilac Wines; DSix; Baggot Street Wines; Corkscrew; Blackrock Cellar; Martins’; Morton’s; McHugh’s; Grapevine; Wicklow Wine Co