Apulia, in Southern Italy, is far off the tourist radar but has rich pickings for the inquisitive wine lover
WITH scorching days and cool breezy nights, Italy’s Apulia region is famous for its fruits of the land. Three-quarters of Italy’s pasta are produced from durum wheat grown in the rolling fields scattered across the land. Abundant olive trees provide for a third of Italy’s olive oil. And here too, you’ll find the country’s prolific wines.
Primitivo, Italy’s 12th most planted variety is Apulia’s most famous grape. Historically used to produce bulk wine, the region consequently became known for its mass-produced wines, good only for blending.
Of late, however, producers have discovered the untapped bounty of Primitivo. With its attractive fruit flavours and smooth tannins, talented winemakers have decided to go upmarket – turning grapes made for bulk into boutique wines.
To witness this remarkable transformation, I travelled into the heart of Apulia – 40km inland and south of Bari, Apulia’s capital, to the little hillside town of Gioia del Colle.
To look into the future, I first had to understand the past.
It was here in the late 1700s that Primitivo grapes came to being. A priest in Apulia began looking for an early ripening grapevine for propagating, the reason being that spring frosts usually occur late in the region and would damage new buds (which would grow into fruit). If the priest could find vines with a shorter vegetative cycle (faster growing vines), new buds would sprout after the debilitating frost and yet grow quickly enough to produce ripe fruit before the detrimental autumn rains. Happily, the priest did find such a vine in Gioia del Colle. He made cuttings and named the “new” vines Primativo, meaning “early ripening”.
Vincenzo Verrastro, an agronomist, took me for a walk around his small town of 28,000 inhabitants.
“We are in the real country here; every resident is a farmer.” Vincenzo explained that every home has wine cellars – whether banker, baker or babysitter, every resident makes wine in one form or another.
My next stop was the vineyard of Cantina Polvanera. Standing on the rich red soil among the old bush vines of Primitivo, its affable owner Filippo Cassano explained that many styles of wine can be made from the Primitivo grape.
“Taste a Primitivo and you will be seduced by the flavours of berries, prunes and herbs. Not only that, the wine takes on different characters depending on the soil the vines grow on.”
Cassano handed me a wine called “16”. Made from vines planted on dark rocky but iron-rich soils, I detected dark fruit flavours in a rich wine with medium tannins. In contrast, another wine called “17”, made from vines growing on limestone-loam soils, exhibited finer-structured tannins with a lovely texture.
“Primitivo also comes in different styles,” explained Cassano proudly as he poured me three other wines.
One was a sweet, light-red Primitivo called “21”; another was a sparkling pink, which was bubbly and refreshing. The last wine was a Rosato (Primitivo blended with other varietals) with red fruit notes. I was delighted to have been introduced to the many facets of Primitivo.
At another vineyard, Plantamura, I met its owner, the petite and charming Mariangela Plantamura. Originally a city slicker, she moved to the countryside to be closer to her first love – growing Primitivo and making wine.
Whilst strolling in her fields, where herbs such as wild mint, thyme and lavender grow abundantly alongside vines, she reached down and picked some.
“Wines take on the subtle aromas of the herbs and flowers that the vines grew with. Smell these herbs and then tell me if you can detect the same in my wine,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Sure enough, a Plantamura Primitivo 2009 had pronounced red berry aromas accompanied by a beguiling scent of flowers and herbs. Additionally, Primitivo responds to growing conditions. Being from a hot and dry year, Plantamura’s 2011 wine was resplendent with black fruit and black cherry flavours.
A true great wine will stand the test of time. You may wonder how these former mass-market wines compare to some of the famous wines of the world.
At Cantina Fatalone, I tasted some mature versions of Primitivo, dating back more than a decade. The Fatalone Primitivo of 2005 had hints of farmyard, bovril and a tinge of iodine – it reminded me of an old Bordeaux. The 2003 with its chocolates, red fruit, soy, earth and silky overtones was reminiscent of a Burgundy.
The 2001 had a Barbaresco-like camphor-mint leather bouquet. I declared that the 2000, with its balsam, meat, stewed fruit hints and a dry finish, was in a class of its own.
The successful evolution of the Primitivo grape is truly something to celebrate – it is no longer a bulk wine but one to collect, savour and cherish. And it is still surprisingly easy on the wallet.
Impressive Wines from Gioia del Colle
Guiliani Primitivo Riserva 2008 – Forest fruits, cherry, hint of mocha, tobacco and soy with a sweet core and a satin texture. Higher altitude vines at 500m; wine aged in big casks as well as barriques.
Guiliani Primitivo Riserva 2007 – Forest fruit, with a sweet fruit core, cotton-satin textures and firm finish.
Guiliani Primitivo ‘1922’ Vino da Meditazione – Intense red, with savoury sweet flavours, honeyed yet with a dry firm finish. Late harvest wine.
Tenuta Chiaramonte “Muro Sant’Angelo” Primitivo 2008 – Full-bodied with extract, pomegranate, small red fruits and an intense sweet tangy finish. From 60-year-old vines and low yields.
Tenute Chiaramonte Primitivo Riserva 2006 – Sweet-sour fruit, tobacco, minerals, leather and fine sticky tannins.
Pietraventosa “Ossimoro” 2007 – Smoke, sweet core of fruit, minerals, velvety, complex and long. Primitivo blend with 30% Aglianico.
Pietraventosa Primitivo 2007 – Soft and silky, melt in the mouth wine with succulent fruit, berries and spice
Pietraventosa “Allegoria” Primitivo 2008 – Intense ripe fruit, hint of biscuits, velvety, soft with a saline finish. Stainless steel ageing only.
Pietraventosa Riserva 2008 – Mixed berries, spice, fresh soft, silky and long. Unwooded.
Tenuta Viglione “Johe” 2008 – Fragrant wine with fresh cherries, strawberries, pepper spice and orange peel. Primitivo blend with 50% Aleatico.
Tenuta Viglione “Marpione” Primitivo Riserva 2008 – Perfumed and intense with nuances of leather. From 78-year-old vines, aged in big casks and stainless steel tanks.
Tenuta Viglione Primitivo 2005 – Mixed fruit, green plums, subtle leather notes, balanced
Tenuta Viglione Rupestre IGT 2008 -Nutty with red fruit, chocolate and old leather. Lovely acids, long finished. Primitivo-Merlot blend.
Plantamura (red label) 2010– Floral nose with basket of red fruits. balanced, elegant and with sticky tannins. Long.
Plantamura Riserva (white label) 2008 – Forest fruits, sour cherries, vanilla, intense and structured. For long ageing.
Plantamura (black label) 2009 – Red and black fruits, herbs, florals and balsam notes; structured and elegant.
Fatalone Primitivo Riserva 2009 – Intense with red and black fruits, coffee nuances and tight tannins (tank sample)
Fatalone Primitivo Riserva 2008 – Balsam n0tes, sour cherries and with a sweet balance (tank sample)
Fatalone Primitivo Riserva 2007 – Black plums, blackcurrants, silky texture, touch of sweetness in the finish (tank sample)
Fatalone Primitivo Riserva 2006 – Sweet fruit nose with pepper, florals and vanilla, balanced.
Fatalone Primitivo Riserva 2004 – Mocha, chocolate, Alacantra leather, stewed fruit, vanilla, lively acids and medium long finish.