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.