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Known for its white-sand beaches and seemingly endless sunny days, Puglia is the vacationland of Italy. Tourists from around the world flock in droves during peak summer season, basking in the region’s warmth, sipping on local fresh rosatos and enjoying the simple, yet refined, farm- and sea-to-table fare only Puglia can provide.
The heel of Italy’s boot is also the country’s agricultural hub, producing the bulk of the wheat, olives, vegetables and fruit that supply the rest of the continent. So it should be no surprise that wine grape production is also within its forte. Second only to Veneto, Puglia is a viticultural powerhouse that produced about a fifth of Italy’s wine in 2020.
Quantity and quality often don’t go hand in hand in the wine world, yet a growing number of small producers are reviving the region and pushing beyond its bulk-wine past to shed new light on a number of native grapes that have thrived in the region for centuries.
Producing some of the best red, rosato and even sparkling wines from Puglia, here are the main grapes to know.
Undoubtedly the hallmark grape of Puglia, Primitivo is one of the most widely planted black grapes in the region. Its name is derived from the Italian word primaticcio, which means first fruit, referring to the variety’s early ripening. With harvest as early as mid-August, Primitivo is among the first grapes picked in all of Italy.
If Primitivo is Puglia’s stalwart grape, Manduria is the reason why. Made of 18 municipalities in the province of Taranto, with the town of Manduria at the heart, this region is home to the rich, velvety-textured wines of Primitivo di Manduria Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). As with most well-known wine regions, location is key. The area is composed of terra rossa soils, which are sandy-clay in texture and rich in iron oxide, giving it a reddish color. While the area offers little in terms of elevation, it does benefit from its unique location between Puglia’s two seas. Hugging the Ionian on one side, with the Adriatic but 40 miles north on the other, wind generated from both seas is crucial for quality.
The wind “drastically reduces the presence of stagnant humidity, particularly suffered by the Primitivo,” says Giovanni Dimitri, commercial director for Produttori di Manduria, the oldest active co-op winery in Puglia. “And in summer, night sea breezes are essential for reducing temperatures in the vineyards, thus positively influencing the day-night temperature range.”
This temperature range is key for maintaining bright acidity, which is needed to balance the ripe, jammy fruit and higher alcohol that can easily creep up to 16% abv. The wines of Primitivo di Manduria DOC are typically bold and saturated with rich plum and dark berry flavors matched by bright acidity and coating tannins. Riservas must be aged at least two years—with minimum nine months in oak—prior to release, which results in unctuous wines that can benefit from up to 10 years of further aging before best enjoyment.
In the central Puglia province of Bari sits the inland denomination of Gioia del Colle. It lies at the foot of the Murgia plateau and is home to a Primitivo expression that is quite distinct from its Mandurian counterpart.
With elevations between 320 and 1,600 feet above sea level, this area benefits from generally less humidity than coastal regions. The temperatures consistently range from the high 80s°F to high 90s°F during the day in the summer months, while the night temperatures can drop up to 35 degrees—a stronger variance than typically found in Manduria.
In the west, closer to Murgia, the soils are lean and rocky, with a thin topsoil of terra rossa. “These particular conditions ensure that the Primitivo grapes offer wines of great elegance, freshness, minerality and longevity,” says Marianna Annio, who together with her husband, Raffaele Leo, owns and operates Agricole Pietraventosa. Wines from this denomination tend to showcase the more herbal, spicy side of Primitivo, with the rich fruit playing in the background.