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 bread basket 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. That still goes on, but 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.
Winemaking has improved, too. Temperature-controlled fermentation, for example, maintains freshness in the wine and guards against the extraction of too much harsh tannin, according to Sergio Leonardo, winemaker at Castello Monaci.
Both Cantele and Monaci are on the flat Salento Peninsula, where days are hot and dry, although it does cool down at night. Maintaining freshness in the wines is important, because the climate can lead to wines that are high in alcohol, with a sort of cooked character.
Still, says Paolo Cantele, brand manager for the family winery, "We can produce a great wine, especially red wines." Most of the wines also are great values, with few costing 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 without being heavy. 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 real 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.
Apulia clearly has potential, and some big Italian wine producers have noticed. Zonin, which has estates all over Italy, in 2000 bought Masseria Altemura, planted vines and built a new cellar. And Antinori, best known for its Tuscan wines, has established two estates in Apulia for its Tormaresca brand: one in Salento and one in the more hilly Castel del Monte area to the north. Antinori now has more than 900 acres of vineyard between the two estates.
Antinori's Tormaresca property in Salento is planted with negroamaro, primitivo, fiano and some international varieties, and the top wine is a negroamaro named for the farm, Masseria Maime. The Castel del Monte estate, called Bocca di Lupo, specializes in aglianico, the top red grape of the neighboring Campania region. The 2007 Tormaresca Bocca di Lupo ($45) aglianico is dark, dense and powerful, with dark fruit, mineral, spicy oak, dark chocolate and firm tannins. That estate is also the source of the 2009 Trentangeli ($24), a full-bodied blend of aglianico, cabernet and syrah that shows hints of roasted meat, graphite and mineral. Tormaresca's best-value red is the 2011 Neprica ($12), a blend of negroamaro, primitivo and cabernet that's fresh, plump and dark, with spicy black fruit and fine tannins.
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If you're a zinfandel lover, give primitivo from Apulia a try. Tormaresca makes a particularly good one called Torcicoda. The 2011 Torcicoda Primitivo ($22) is dense and glass-coating, with ripe yet l ively black fruit, some spicy notes and fine tannins. It's quite refined for a primitivo/zinfandel. The 2011 Leone de Castris "Villa Santera" Primitivo ($18) is dark, spicy and exuberantly fruity, as is the 2011 Masseria Altemura "Sasseo" Primitivo ($16). The 2011 Castello Monaci "Piluna" Primitivo ($14) is less overtly fruity but adds a note of white pepper.
There are some whites in Apulia, including a fair number of chardonnays, many of them unoaked. More interesting, though, are the wines made from fiano and verdeca, which retain a lot of liveliness even in the hot climate. The 2012 Masseria Altemura Fiano ($13) is fresh and floral, with fleshy white fruit and a hint of apple peel, while the 2012 Castello Monaci "Acante" Fiano ($15) also has a subtle creaminess.
Verdeca is a local variety that generally has a flinty, mineral character. That's the case with the 2012 Leone de Castris "Messapia" Verdeca ($16), which is racy and fresh, with citrus and white fruit, some floral notes, a hint of almond and salty minerality. The 2012 Li Veli Verdeca ($18) is fleshier but still has that mineral character.