The land in Apulia — the geographic “heel” of the Italian “boot” — is remarkably productive. So much so that the region (called Puglia by the Italians) is known as the breadbasket of Italy, with wheat, olives and a panoply of vegetables.
That productiveness extends to wine, which isn’t always a good thing. Traditionally, wine producers favored quantity over quality. Most Apulian wine was shipped north in bulk, for blending into wines that needed more heft, or it was distilled. Although that still goes on, artisanal wine production is on the rise.
“There is a new wave in agriculture in this area,” says Gianni Cantele, winemaker for his family’s Cantele winery. The younger generation, he says, has been taking over family vineyards and focusing more on quality, with lower yields and better trellising.
“We can produce a great wine, especially red wines,” says Paolo Cantele, brand manager for the family winery. Most of the wines also are great values. Few cost more than $20.
Apulia’s primary red grapes are primitivo and negroamaro. Primitivo gets a lot of attention because, genetically, it’s the same grape as zinfandel. There are some very good ones, but the grape, like zinfandel, easily gets overripe. I’m more interested in negroamaro, which is the primary grape of the wine known as Salice Salentino.
Negroamaro means “black bitter,” and the wines certainly are dark. I don’t find them particularly bitter, although they can be quite tannic. The grape is sometimes blended with the more fragrant malvasia nera grape, although several vintners I visited said they were moving toward using 100 percent negroamaro in their Salice Salentino wines.
The 2009 Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva ($13), for example, is all negroamaro. This lively, easy-to-drink wine displays spicy red fruit, a hint of earthiness and just enough tannin to keep it from being too soft. The 2012 Li Veli “Passamente” Salice Salentino ($12), also all negroamaro, is spicy and concentrated, while the 2009 Li Veli “Morgana” Salice Salentino Riserva ($20) is richer, with more structure.
On the other hand, the 2011 Leone de Castris “Maiana” Salice Salentino ($13) is much fruitier, perhaps in part because of the addition of 20 percent malvasia nera. The 2011 Castello Monaci Salice Salentino ($14), which also contains some malvasia nera, is quite spicy, with white pepper and nice freshness. For a bargain, there’s the 2010 Li Veli “Primonero” Negroamaro ($10), which has some primitivo in the blend; it offers notes of red fruit, tea and dark chocolate. Another good buy is the 2011 Tormaresca Neprica ($12), a blend of negroamaro, primitivo and cabernet that’s fresh, plump and dark, with spicy black fruit and fine tannins.
PICK OF THE WEEK
Bonny Doon 2010 Jespersen Vineyard Syrah ($40) This red from a vineyard in Edna Valley is a textbook example of cool climate syrah: dark fruit, smoke, roasted meat and white pepper, wrapped up in a big wine that still clocks in at under 13 percent alcohol.