The winds of change now blow across the long-neglected heel of Italy's boot, claims NICOLAS BELFRAGE MW. Not a year ago I, like many observers of the Puglian wine scene, was still somewhat sceptical about its prospects. We wondered what was going to become of quality Puglian wine after the Garofano era. Severino Garofano, readers of these pages will recall, is the consultant oenologist who almost single-handedly pulled Puglia out of the vinous dark ages, bringing the concept of fine bottled wine to this land of enormous production; practically all of it, historically, plonk: bulk wine, produced in vast quantities in tendone-trained vineyards for the making of vermouths, or in lesser but still considerable quantities from old alberello- (bush) trained vines capable of bringing forth wines of great colour, alcohol and extract for blending with weedy Tuscan Sangioveses or piss-poor southern French pinard.

The winds of change now blow across the long-neglected heel of Italy’s boot, claims NICOLAS BELFRAGE MW.

Not a year ago I, like many observers of the Puglian wine scene, was still somewhat sceptical about its prospects. We wondered what was going to become of quality Puglian wine after the Garofano era. Severino Garofano, readers of these pages will recall, is the consultant oenologist who almost single-handedly pulled Puglia out of the vinous dark ages, bringing the concept of fine bottled wine to this land of enormous production; practically all of it, historically, plonk: bulk wine, produced in vast quantities in tendone-trained vineyards for the making of vermouths, or in lesser but still considerable quantities from old alberello- (bush) trained vines capable of bringing forth wines of great colour, alcohol and extract for blending with weedy Tuscan Sangioveses or piss-poor southern French pinard.

Today, however, there seems little doubt that a new wind is blowing in southern Puglia. The wine ‘revolution’ that we have heard about in other parts of Italy, notably Tuscany, is perhaps beginning to happen, too, in this sleepy lowland stiletto heel of the Italian boot. Part of the change stems from the fact that Puglia has now been ‘discovered’ by the oenological world. Consulting oenologists from Tuscany and points north, such as Roberto Cipresso and Claudio Icardi (at Accademia dei Racemi), Giorgio Marone (Conte Zecca) and Luca d’Attoma (Rubino), are bringing a wider, more international viewpoint and experience to bear. Producers such as Pasqua of Verona, Avignonesi of Montepulciano, Feudi di San Gregorio of Campania, Kendall Jackson of California and Tuscany and Calatrasi of Sicily are acquiring or renting vineyards and growing, or aiming to grow, top-quality grapes, although in some cases the grapes are being transported elsewhere for vinification. One big name – perhaps the most ‘revolutionary’ in Italian oenology – to take a strong and direct interest, both producing and vinifying in Puglia, is Antinori, under the name Tormaresca/Vigneti del Sud. The name, in fact, covers two viticultural realities, one of 100 hectares (ha) near Bari in the DOC zone Castel del Monte, at an altitude of around 200 metres, the other of 250ha (with a similar number still to come) in the near sea-level zone of Brindisi. The vineyards have been or are being systematically replanted according to the latest principles for combining quality and mechanical efficiency, since this flat country lends itself to mechanisation, and all are equipped for drip irrigation, which, according to Antinori, is necessary in this arid climate. The grape varieties for the (currently) two wines are for the most part non-traditional – Aglianico, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot at Castel del Monte for the red (of which even the Aglianico is something of an interloper, being more of Campanian and Basilicatan origin), and Chardonnay at Brindisi for the white. Needless to say the winery where both wines are made, at Andria in Castel del Monte, is state of the art, and the Chardonnay is barrique-aged. The red wine, interestingly, gets no wood treatment – yet, let us remember that 1998 was the first vintage for both, the wines having been released at Vinitaly 2000.

So how are they? Very well made, as you would expect, but not particularly Puglian in character, except for showing considerable ripeness of fruit and ‘warmth’. Both are marketed as Puglia IGT. Perhaps the most important development to occur in the past couple of years, however, is that of the validation of the small grower–producer, working in his own terroir with his traditional varieties, but under the supervision of people who can advise him as to how to get the best grapes from his vineyards and the best wine from his grapes. Such growers, until very recently, tended to be old men scraping a living from the earth as best they could with basic viticultural equipment, no oenological equipment (they would have sold fruit to the cantina sociale or to a merchant), and little hope that their sons would follow them in such a gruelling path. Hence the flight of the young to the cities, or out of the region altogether; hence the uprooting of thousands of hectares of quality alberello vineyard with the financial assistance of the EU, while the high-yielding plonk-producing tendone growers flourished.

Today the young are bitten by a new enthusiasm, as is evidenced by their descent en masse on the Vinitaly 2000 wine fair, for the first time in memory. They want to do something special with their land, they are interested as to why, for example, a Primitivo will bring forth a certain kind of wine on terra rossa, another on terra nera, and something quite different on sand. ‘There is a new optimism, an excitement,’ said one observer. ‘Speriamo che duri’ (let’s hope it lasts).If the author of the quote, Gregorio Perrucci of the Accademia dei Racemi of Manduria, has anything to do with it (and so far he has), it will last and flourish. In the mid-1990s Gregory (he likes the anglicised version of his name, as does his wife Betty – Elisabetta – who works with him) decided to take his company ‘back to the future’, identifying the best parcels of land in various zones according, mainly, to soil type, as had his grandfather, a respected vine-grafter, 40 years previously. Bit by bit, they instilled in the growers a passion for their land, and, mainly by offering bonus prices for grapes or wines produced according to specification, encouraged them to sell them their best.

As the idea expanded, the Accademia started drafting in oenologists and viticulturists from the north. The idea today is to make specific consultants responsible for advice to and production at specific estates or wineries. This includes both private wineries and cantine sociali, in which latter the Accademia tries to create a ‘corner of quality’, selecting the most promising members, those willing and able to follow the Accademia’s instructions. The spin-off for the co-operative comes in raised prestige and help from the Accademia in acquiring EC development funds.One of the most important aspects of this movement is the nurturing and improvement of indigenous or long-established (but in some cases disappearing) varieties, starting with Primitivo and Negroamaro, and including Malvasia Nera di Lecce, Aglianico, Montepulciano, Ottavianello (Cinsaut), Fiano and Moscato. So far the influx of international varieties such as Cabernet and Merlot is minimal. Another important aspect is the return to the high-quality but labour-intensive alberello method of training (although in a modified version), which increases possibilities of mechanisation but not to the extent of enabling picking by machine.

Names associated with the Accademia and beginning to register with international observers, in some cases scoring very high marks in competitive tastings, include Primitivo varietals Sinfarosa (‘Primitivo’ and ‘Zinfandel’), Felline, Archidamo, Portile, Dunico and Primo Amore, the last being a dessert wine. Blends, generally featuring Negroamaro and/or Primitivo with Malvasia Nera, or Montepulciano, include Bizantino Rosso, Gorgolano, I Monili, Te Deum, Alberello, Vigna del Feudo, Armecolo and Priante. The sole important ‘intruder’, grapewise, is a pure Cabernet Sauvignon called Finibusterre from the property Torre Mozza. Another operation similar to the Accademia is Torrevento, at Castel del Monte. Francesco Liantonio’s Torrevento winery at Corato, in the province of Bari, puts out 50,000 cases of wine per annum, including Castel del Monte DOC Bianco, Rosato, Rosso and Rosso Riserva (‘Vigna Pedale’), as well as Moscato di Trani (‘Dulcis in Fondo’). The winery disposes of 25ha of its own, but this is obviously not sufficient to cover production, so it has established close relationships with various growers whose vineyards it supervises in order to obtain the quality of fruit it requires. One of the producers it works with most closely, and whose wines it markets together with its own, is Lino Carparelli’s I Pastini in Locorotondo, which turns out full, sturdy Primitivo del Tarantino from 50 year-old vines, and a Murgia Rosso that combines Cabernet and Montepulciano.Not all the improvement in today’s Puglia, however, is coming from the ‘new guard’. Severino Garofano himself, though now into his sixties, is making wines as fine as he did 20 years ago, or finer, with occasional new twists, not least at his own property of Masseria Monaci in Copertino. His most famous charge, Taurino of Guagnano in the Salentino, that flat land of broad vistas of dry stone walls, ancient, gnarled olive trees, fields of artichokes and tomatoes and vines, vines, vines, is still putting forth wines of impressive weight, structure and fine, ripe fruit, despite the untimely passing of the padrone, Cosimo, at the start of the harvest of 1999. Cosimo it was who introduced to Puglia the now spreading concepts of delayed harvesting (for Patriglione, probably Puglia’s most successful fine wine to date) and single-vineyard production (for Notar-panaro, another Negroamaro-based cru), not to mention that of the drastic reduction of yields in the vineyard to obtain maximum extract and balance in the fruit – something Cosimo believed in so passionately that he withdrew his wines from the local DOC in protest at the high level of permitted yields, labelling them (today) as Salento IGT.

Candido, another of the Garofano school, has been at the forefront of innovation in Puglia for many years, with wines such as Duca d’Aragona, a superior blend of Negroamaro and Montepulciano, and Capello di Prete, Negroamaro plus Malvasia Nera. Now Sandro Candido has brought out, in conjunction with Garofano, one of Puglia’s first international-indigenous blends, called Immensum (was L’Infinito): 80% Negroamaro with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Lovers of poetry will appreciate the burst of verse on the label of the Salento Rosso IGT wine. Lovers of wine will appreciate the fact that Cabernet has not detracted from the classic soft, plummy-pruney style of Candido’s reds but has instead added a dimension of depth, nor has new wood been used to obtrude upon the fruit.At Agricole Vallone, yet another member of the Garofano stable, there are no surprises, but the level of the existing wines remains as high as ever. The South’s nearest thing to Amarone, Graticciaia, described in an earlier edition of Decanter, has excelled itself in 1994, being adjudged by the influential Vini d’Italia yearly guide for 2000 as ‘perhaps the best yet realised’. Vigna Flaminio Rosso and Rosato remain among the finest examples of their respective classes.

Other firmly established producers of the Salento are today either reviving or upgrading. In the former category is Leone de Castris, long considered the doyen of Salento wineries until family and financial problems beset it in the early 1990s; now it’s back with a vengeance, with its Donna Lisa Riserva Salice Salentino Rosso being capped as one of only three ‘tre bicchieri’ Puglian wines in the Vini d’Italia 2000 guide. Among the latter are Conte Zecca at Leverano, with over 300ha of vineyard, among the most ‘New World’ in terms of vineyard techniques, not to mention the introduction of French varieties; and Nero, a blend of Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera and Cabernet, is a wine typical of the ‘new Puglia’.

Other names worth mentioning are Michele Calo’ of Tuglie in the Salentino, with its constantly improving Mjere range; Rosa del Golfo, of Damiano Calo’ at Alezio, with its excellent rosato of the same name; and, of course, Rivera up at Castel del Monte, one of the region’s longest-standing producers which today is adding to its extensive range, which includes a number of wines of French grapes, an Aglianico Riserva ‘Cappellaccio’ that promises well for the future. And those are the words I’d like to end on: ‘Promises well for the future.’ At the dawn of the new century there does seem to be a buzz abroad in Puglia, a new mindset, and, if it lasts, considering Puglia’s potential for quality production, we could be looking in a few years’ time at a totally transformed picture, as occurred in France’s Midi between 1975 and 1995. ‘We are changing our territory,’ one of my interviewees commented. I would go further and, putting words into mouths, say: ‘We are changing our mentality.’

Written by NICOLAS BELFRAGE MW