Steven Spurrier April '10 Column – Hot on the heels of Primitivo

  • Monday 22 March 2010

The last time I was in Puglia, in the heel of Italy, was in August 1965, when I disembarked the overnight ferry from Greece in Bari and drove almost non-stop in my prized Triumph Herald convertible to arrive in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain in time for the opening of the Fiestas de la Vendimia. This time was less hectic: last December, the trip convened by Puglia Best Wine, a newly formed group of five of the region’s principal producers.

Puglia’s vineyards cover 110,000ha (hectares), a fraction less than Bordeaux – figures likely soon to be reversed as the EU is subsidising expansion in the former and retraction in the latter. Of these, 65,000ha are vinified by cantine sociali (cooperatives), so it was fitting that two of the Best Wine group were co-ops while three were family-owned estates.

The production of wine in Puglia is spread across the main regions of Brindisi facing the Adriatic Sea in the north; Lecce and Taranto facing the Ionian Sea in the south; and Salice Salentino, which has its own DOC, in the middle. If there is a general rather than a regional name, it is Wines of Salento, covering seven DOCs and as many IGTs as the producers are prepared to make.

Most of the reds are from Negroamaro (often blended with up to 30% Malvasia Nero to soften the tannins), Primitivo and the recently revived Susumaniello. The aromatic but still dry whites come from unblended Malvasia Bianco, Fiano and Vermentino, with Aleatico and Moscato for sweet whites. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay have been planted recently, in my view detracting from the regional character typified by the red Primitivo.

So named due to its early ripening, Primitivo arrived in Puglia unannounced in the 1870s. Some say that it was a degenerative Pinot Noir first imported into Italy by the Benedictines, following the suppression of religious properties by Napoleon; others that it was a cousin of the Piedmontese Dolcetto.

It was planted in Manduria in 1881, finding a congenial microclimate in which it flourished, quickly acquiring the name (now a DOC) Primitivo di Manduria; in those days wines often took the name of the train station from which the barrels were exported. Research since 1967 at the University of California, Davis, ended in 1998 with Professor Carole Meredith confirming that Primitivo and Zinfandel (and Plavac Mali from Croatia) were the sons of the same parents.

The Manduria Cooperative, founded in 1932 and now with 400 members farming 900ha, styles itself ‘The Master of Primitivo, the soul of traditional Salento’. In case there was any doubt, it has published The Renaissance of Primitivo di Manduria, a coffee-table book whose drum-beating is infectious: ‘If the town is now successful, it is mainly thanks to a wine called Primitivo – powerful, fragrant like a vamp, with a rapt colour, an antique and present flavour.

For decades it gave lymph and body to wines of scanty personality yet much more celebrated of the north. In Milan they watered it and peddled it as Barbera; in France it strengthened the Pinot Noir, an arrogant relative. It was an immigrant.’

Primitivo was made a DOC in 1974 but this risked being rescinded for ‘non-use’. But now it is back – Silvio Berlusconi even serves it at presidential dinners.

Apart from a red and rosé Negroamaro and a white Fiano, the Manduria Co-op majors on Primitivo. The 2009, served in jugs right from the tank at lunch, had a robust, dense fruit regionality, while the bottled 2006s – Memoria, Lirica and Elegia – with increasing time in barrel, hinted at future progress. The DOC demands a minimum alcohol of 14% (making the 12.5% of Châteauneuf-du-Pape look puny) but there is no sense of heaviness, and, unlike many Zinfandels, low residual sugars.

The Elegia, with its dense colour and black fruit nose, was both succulent and vigorous, an individual wine worth its local price of E16. The co-op also makes a delicious Primitivo Dolce Naturale, fully sweet in the Banyuls style and perfect for mature cheeses; a friendly sweet Spumante; and, of course, a Grappa, which I noted tasted ‘clear and clean, almost health-giving’.

If anything from Puglia can rival my newfound passion for Primitivo, it’s the recently rediscovered Susumaniello, the speciality of young Luigi Rubino, the president of the Puglia Best Wine group, who makes it on his family’s large estate in the cooler region of Brindisi. With Riccardo Cotarella (Italy’s Michel Rolland, whose younger brother Renzo runs the Antinori estates) as consultant for its flagship Torre Testa wine, Susumaniello could be the variety that puts the region on the international map.

Cotarella describes it as ‘a wild grape – easy to extract the colour, but difficult to stop the tannins from becoming too bitter’. A vertical tasting proved he had cracked it with the 2006, which ‘has a little help from science’ – a great wine, the best from a fascinating four days.

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