With the exception of its Gargano promontory, the “spur” of the Italian boot, and a small clump of pre-Apennine hills in its northwestern corner, Puglia is a region of rolling plains. Puglia is Italy’s grain belt, and by virture of its flatness and hotness it is also one of the most productive wine regions of Italy (typically Puglia runs neck-and-neck with Sicily for the title of Most Prolific Italian Wine Region).
Thanks to the international success of the primitivo grape, which has been genetically linked to American red zinfandel, Puglia is now much more than just a producer of bulk wines for blending — although that’s still a huge business down here on the “heel.” Today, Puglia is considered one of Italy’s most dynamic wine regions, thanks in large part to an abundance of relatively cheap vineyard land, but also to an amazingly consistent climate that draws comparisons to that of California. Under the intense Puglian sun, a new generation of Puglian producers is attracting a more serious brand of wine drinker, with wines that aren’t merely super-ripe but actually have some structure and character.
The knock on Puglian reds is that they often taste “cooked,” in a literal sense — the fruit is so ripe that it takes on a jammy feel, while the alcoholic intensity of the wines often makes them taste “hot.” In a super-hot, super-dry climate like Puglia’s, grapes tend to speed to “sugar ripeness” (i.e. enough sugar to produce a wine of 13-14% alcohol) without having enough hang time to develop physiological ripeness. All of the many component elements of the grape need time to develop in order to give a wine complexity, and, in many cases, Puglian wines are undoubtedly ripe and rich but perhaps lacking in the character department. This is starting to change, however, as we’re seeing more and more interesting wines (mostly reds) come out of Puglia with each new vintage.
Much of the attention lavished on Puglia lately has been focused on the southern part of the region, namely the Salento peninsula, which juts out into the sea. This month, however, we’re focusing on the northern plains, and especially those near the northern provincial capital of Foggia. Foggia is a fantastic bread and pasta town (thanks to the abundance of cereal grains), and the province of Foggia is also the spiritual home to my favorite Puglian red grape, Uva di Troia. The grape is thought to have originated in ancient Troy (or Troia in Italian), and there is a small village named Troia west of Foggia. Uva di Troia, also called Nero di Troia, offers an appealing mix of inky color, dark berry fruit, and spice to wines from a variety of Foggia-area DOCs, most notably the Castel del Monte appellation to the south. For my money, the wines of Castel del Monte are the best in Puglia.