In this narrow region you’re never far from either sea or inland wineries, and always surrounded by beautiful scenery and superb food.
Puglia travel guide
Planted area 86,000ha
Reds: Primitivo, Nero di Troia, Negroamaro, Aglianico, Susumaniello, Malvasia Nera, Aleatico
Whites Fiano Minutolo, Moscato, Bombino Bianco, Verdeca, Greco
Production 5,900,000 hectolitres, of which 1 million hl go into DOC/ DOCG wines and 2 million hl into IGT wines.
In recent years, Puglia – the long strip of land that stretches from Italy’s heel up its Achilles tendon – has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, thanks to its seductively pretty landscape, sea views and majestic olive trees.
It also offers some of Italy’s best food and wine. This is Mediterranean cuisine at its most essential: simple grilled fish caught daily from the region’s largely unspoiled coastline; fresh vegetables ripened under a fierce sun; handmade pasta and cheeses; and rich, fruity wines to accompany them. What could be better?
They’re all part of the Mediterranean dream. Just like the famous white-washed houses, picturesque fishing ports and historic hill-towns you find here that are more often associated with Greece. Southern Italy was a key part of Magna Graecia, after all.
Tourism counts in Puglia, so you can find everything from standalone villas, agriturismi and family hotels to holiday in. Wine lovers keen to explore Puglia’s native grapes have lots to choose from, but the region’s length – about 425km from the tip of the heel to its northern boundary with Molise – means you’re best limiting your explorations if you don’t want to spend long hours in the car.
We’ll focus here on the central area between the ports of Trani and Brindisi, where Primitivo is the hero grape. (But if you make an excursion into southern Puglia, don’t miss the stunning Baroque city of Lecce).
In the red
Puglia is best known for three red grapes: Nero di Troia (also called Uva di Troia), grown primarily in the north around Bari; Primitivo, from two main areas in the centre; and Negroamaro, in the south, on the Salento peninsula (the real heel). You’ll also see less-familiar indigenous grapes like Bombino Nero, Susumaniello and Malvasia Nera, plus the Aglianico that is so successful in Campania.
As for white grapes, it’s too hot for most of them, though some fine wines are being made from the local aromatic Fiano Minutolo and other native varieties such as Verdeca and Bianco d’Alessano. That doesn’t stop the Puglians from thirsting for chilled whites and sparkling wines to accompany the Adriatic seafood they love both raw and cooked. Indeed, Puglians drink more sparkling wines than any other Italian region, with the city of Bari alone consuming more Champagne than Japan.
Primitivo’s two historic areas, the soft hills of Gioia del Colle and the flat coastal land around Manduria, near Taranto, offer the chance to taste the difference in its terroirs. ‘The cherry fruit and rich colour that distinguishes Primitivo is underpinned by lively acidity and minerality in these areas, resulting in a freshness that makes them very enjoyable to drink, especially when they’re not encumbered by too much wood ageing,’ says Giuseppe Baldassarre, author of several books about Primitivo.
These areas also share a traditional style of vine cultivation – ad alberello, or bush vines. ‘These free-standing “little tree” vines are better at surviving our extremely hot, dry summers,’ says Gianfranco Fino, who was among the first to see the potential in the fruit of these old vines in Manduria, where the deep red soils are interspersed with limestone. He and his wife produce dynamic Primitivo in both a dry style and a lovely sweet version. Nearby, the biodynamic Morella winery also focuses on old bush vines of Primitivo, with single-vineyard wines of opulent power.
Most vineyards in these areas are small plots held by local families that have grown grapes for generations. Produttori Vini Manduria is an important co-op that makes wines for 400 members. Of these, 80% are from Primitivo, in a variety of styles from rosato to dessert wines. The cellar is also worth a visit for its fascinating Museo della Civiltà del Vino Primitivo, with exhibits showing how Primitivo has been made through history. Nearby, Alessia Perrucci’s beautiful Masseria Le Fabriche offers fine wines and one of the area’s nicest places to stay.
If you’re interested in sampling some of the region’s lesser-known grapes, put Tenute Rubino near Brindisi on your itinerary. Luigi Rubino was an early champion of the spicy red Susumaniello grape and has brought it to international attention. He’s also admirably active in wine promotion in the area.
The beauty of Puglia is that it’s narrow enough to enable you to sleep by the sea and travel inland in the day to visit wineries and hill-towns like the stunning, all-white Ostuni. And ensure you make time to explore the little country roads around Monopoli, to see and photograph the centuries-old olive groves in their dry-stone-walled fields. These trees live to a great age here as it rarely freezes in winter. Their oil is less aggressive than its northern counterparts in Tuscany or Umbria, and makes a great present to bring home
How to get there
There are many options to get to Bari and Brindisi: fly direct or via another Italian city, enjoy a rambling train journey or arrive by ferry. You’ll want a car once there, so for tourist information and details of wine roads, contact Movimento Turismo Vino in Puglia: mtvpuglia.it
Carla Capalbo is a food, wine and travel writer and photographer based in Italy.
Puglia travel guide: My perfect day
Have a cappuccino and pastry in the colourful port of Trani in one of the bars overlooking its small fishing fleet of painted wooden boats, and watch the fishermen hawk their day’s catch. Then drive south for an hour to Acquaviva delle Fonti to visit Tenute Chiaromonte. If you book ahead, you can walk in the ancient Primitivo vineyards with producer Nicola Chiaromonte, and have an alfresco snack as you taste the wines.
From there it’s a short hop to Gioia del Colle – one of the most important areas for Primitivo – to Polvanera estate, where organic producer Filippo Cassano makes pure deliciously fruity Primitivo without the use of barrels. A visit to his bare-walled cellar, dug right out of the rock below the cantina, is a great way to really see the terroir. Follow that with one of the best meals you can have in Puglia, home-cooked by the women of the house (must be booked ahead), of handmade pasta, fresh and preserved vegetables, fried breads and, of course, great wines.
From Gioia, it’s a scenic 40-minute drive to the village of Alberobello to see the iconic trulli houses with their pointed conical roofs and do a bit of sightseeing. Then meander your way through Fasano towards Monopoli on the coast through the beautiful Val d’Itria, celebrated for its centuries-old, sculptural olive trees and neat vegetable fields. Take a walk in the historic centre of Monopoli, stopping in at Enoteca Il Tralcio to stock up on wines from Puglia and beyond, as well as local specialities.
Have an aperitivo on the seafront before heading for a leisurely dinner and overnight stay at the luxurious Borgo Egnazia, a five-star Moorish palace set among olive groves, with swimming pools, private beach, tennis courts and a fine restaurant.
Puglia travel guide: Where to stay, eat, shop and relax
Comfortable, modern interiors in an 18th-century noble palazzo in the heart of the port. mareresort.it
This up-and-coming biodynamic wine estate, in partnership with Campania’s Feudi di San Gregorio, makes fine wines from Nero di Troia. It also operates as a lovely country house B&B between Trani and Bari. cefalicchio.it
In the countryside between Noci, Alberobello and Locorotondo, this rustic B&B in an 18th-century masseria offers the chance to stay on a working livestock farm. murgiaalbanese.it
This hotel’s friendly service and centre-stage positioning makes up for its faded grandeur, but the effect is positive and it’s great to overlook the harbour and be a few steps from the city’s many piazzas. albergointernazionale.it
In a historical palazzo in the centre of town, this finely appointed hotel is perfect for Primitivo lovers in search of comfort and joy in one of the grape’s epicentres. corteborromeohotel.it
A panoramic restaurant sitting on the dock of the bay in a deconsecrated church serves imaginative, super-fresh fish dishes. lelamparealfortino.it
Trattoria Pugliese, Gioia del Colle
In the town centre, a few steps from one of Frederick II’s stunning castles, this family trattoria is run by a sommelier and her Sicilian husband, so the food and wine are great and won’t break the bank. Via Concezione 9-11, +39 080 343 1728
This is London chef Theo Randall’s favourite restaurant in Ostuni. It’s near the cathedral, so leave time to explore the beautiful white hill-town before or after your meal. Via Peppino Orlando 2; tel +39 0831 330 302
In one of Puglia’s most acclaimed restaurants, Michelin-starred chef Teresa Galeone cooks elegant, creative food in a Baroque palazzo. giasottolarco.it
Ristorante Piazzetta Colonne, Brindisi
Situated overlooking Brindisi’s harbour, at the base of the gargantuan Roman column that is one of the city’s prized monuments, this family-run eatery offers authentic Puglian specialities, with pasta, fish and vegetables taking pride of place. Via Colonne 57; tel +39 0831 172 0488
Li Cannaruti Vineria, Manduria
This restaurant and wine bar, centrally located in the market square of the handsome town of Manduria, offers home-cooked food from the area with wines to match. Piazza Commestibili 7-14; tel +39 338 365 5040
La Corte dei Vescovi, Manduria
In open country on the road that leads from Manduria to the sea, this agriturismo restaurant in a pretty converted country farmhouse offers traditional local fare near the Primitivo vineyards. Ample wine list. Via Sorani km2; tel +39 349 387 1021
Piazza Mercato, Brindisi
The marketplace in the port of Brindisi is well worth a visit if you enjoy seeing small farmers and local fishermen sell their wares. There’s also a marvellous traditional grain and seed shop in the piazza selling sun-dried tomatoes, dried fava beans for making the classic Puglian purée, salted capers and much more. Open mornings.