I gather from my on-trend friends that Puglia is now one of the places to visit. Great news for wine lovers as it happens to be one of the best regions for everyday quaffers.
Puglia (anglicised name Apulia) is located in the very southeast corner of the ‘high heel’ of Italy and stretches about 320km along the Adriatic coast, as far as the Salento Peninsula, protruding into the Adriatic and Ionia Seas. It is a beautiful place, with sun-bleached landscapes, stunning coastline, olive groves and of course vines. Despite the attractions, people have traditionally seemed to pass through the region rather than making it their destination. For centuries armies, pilgrims, traders and crusaders have trudged through on their way to richer pickings, more recently it’s been tourists on their way to and from Greece. I remember passing through the then shabby coastal town of Brindisi many years ago on my way to Corfu, oblivious to the beauty I was missing in Puglia.
Trullo buildings in the village of Alberobello, Puglia.
The name Puglia comes from the Roman a-puvia or ‘lack of rain’ and it is a very hot, dry place. But fertile soil, coupled with the cooling effect of water on three sides, makes the region a perfect place for ripening grapes. In terms of volume of wine produced, Puglia is a powerhouse, second only to Veneto. Not only that, Puglia is responsible for half of Italy’s olive oil.
Puglia can be divided into roughly three areas:
Primitivo is the best known grape variety in Puglia. Originally from Croatia and known as Tribidrag, this grape usually produces full-bodied reds. No one is quite sure when, but at some stage Tribidrag crossed the Adriatic from Croatia to Italy where it became known as Primitivo. In the early 1800s it then travelled via Austria to America where it found a home on the east coast as a table grape. Around the time of the gold rush in the mid 1800s, it was taken to California where it found great popularity as a wine grape and became known as Zinfandel.
Back in Italy, Primitivo was widely grown in Puglia prior to the 1990s where it was valued for its alcohol and colour boosting characteristics and it was blended with the mainly commercial wines of the region. But during the 1990s, financial incentives were offered by the EU to rip up vines in an effort to combat the ‘lake of wine’ and the area under vine dropped from 17,000 ha in 1990, to fewer than 8,000 ha by the year 2000. Since this time Primitivo has seen a revival. Well suited to the fierce Puglian sun, it traditionally produces wines that are high in alcohol, as well as being “generous and rich in fruit and body.” Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson. I like this description from the late Italian wine expert Kyle Phillips: “... the resultant wines tend to be powerful. Inky purple is a common colour, while the fruit balance tends towards lush chewy ripe prune and dried prune, with underlying sweetness, and moderately intense smooth soft tannins.” Typical descriptors for Primitivo include; jam, prune, dark fruits, plum and raspberries.
Primitivo grapes in the vineyard.
And while Primitivo continues to make warm, generous and approachable wine, its style has been changing. Southern Italy is traditionally known for big, ripe and often oxidised reds but in the last decade or so the same sundrenched fruit is being used in a different way - moving away from old oxidative techniques to more modern ones. The fruit is handled more cleanly and there’s greater use of refrigeration as well as longer and cooler ferments.
The resulting wines are characterised by the same delicious Puglian fruit and Italian savouriness, but they’re brighter, cleaner and fresher. They’re less tired, less ripe and more subtle. These days it’s possible to find Puglian wines that are a step up from the commercial stuff of old. They're deliciously drinkable, and there’s been a dramatic increase in their popularity as wine lovers begin to appreciate not only the style but particularly the value of this region’s wines.
One estate that exemplifies this change in Southern Italy is A Mano, which manages to combine the charm, rusticity and flavour of Puglia with freshness and modernity.
‘A Mano’ means ‘hand made’ and is the work of Californian born winemaker Mark Shannon and partner, northern Italian wine marketing expert Elvezia Sbalchiero. Mark initially studied medicine, before deciding on Winemaking at the University of California. After several years working in The States, it was a job in Sicily that not only got him hooked on southern Italy, but introduced him to Elvezia. The couple have a genuine passion for Puglia and its foremost variety, Primitivo.
Winemaker Mark Shannon.
They established A Mano in 1997, embracing the slow pace and traditions of Puglia, yet bringing to it Mark’s experience as a new world winemaker. Mark recalls that after so many years as a technical winemaker, he’d forgotten the right way to make wine - the old fashioned way, “with love.” He’s fond of sentimental descriptions, but it’s OK hearing it from someone with such technical expertise.
The estate is located outside the town of Gioia del Colle, which is about 40km south of the coastal town of Bari. This puts it right at the top and in the middle of the Salento Peninsula, midway between the Ionian and Adriatic seas.
Gioia del Colle is also the name of the DOC (appellation) that extends around the town. It’s located on the Murge Plateau, a limestone plateau, which rises to a height of 450m, providing some respite from the fierce heat of the southern Italian sun. This area claims to have named the Primitivo grape and today the variety is still the mainstay in this predominantly red appellation. I found figures indicating that reds must have a minimum of 50% Primitivo, while others said 60%. Whichever it is, the rest is usually made up of Montepulciano, otherwise Sangiovese, Negroamaro or Malvasia. Also unlike many regions (including Australia which has an 85% rule) if Primitivo is on the label, only Primitivo is allowed in the bottle. Having said that, we are in Italy so I can’t find any sources to verify this.
Elvezia Sbalchiero says her and Mark's 1998 trip to Puglia was supposed to be a short visit. They're still there.
Just a year after the estate was established, the 1998 vintage of A Mano Primitivo was awarded the Gold Medal at the International Wine Challenge in London and was subsequently named Red Wine of the Year for 2000! Another massive endorsement occurred when A Mano was taken on by one of the US’s most highly regarded Italian wine importers, Neil Empson, in the early 2000s.
“A Mano Primitivo is known for its consistency and quality.” Gourmet Traveller.
The fruit for this wine comes from several local growers with 30 to 60 year-old vines. The grapes were picked in early September before being crushed and refrigerated to prevent oxidation. The ferment was carried out traditionally using wild yeasts on the skins - kept cool (17°C) and continued for several weeks in the immaculate, state-of-the-art winery. Red wine ferments use the juice, skins, seeds and pulp, and this slurry, or ‘must’ as it’s known, is pressed when the ferment is finished. The resulting wine was left to settle over the cold winter months. No oak was used and only a very light (10 micron) filtration took place prior to bottling.
The wine is a dark plum colour with translucent edge. The nose shows lovely aromatics of raspberry, prune and chocolate with a touch of that typical Italian savouriness.
Mark makes a real effort to make a leaner style of Primitivo and it seems he’s right on song with this vintage. The combination of traditional and modern techniques have worked a treat in creating a refined style, not usually associated with traditionally rough-hewn Primitivo.
On the palate: Juicy red cranberry, raspberry and cherry fruit, tempered by savoury ferrous notes and a subtle graphite twist. Smooth mouthfeel, firm acid and fine tannins on a nicely dry finish. While it increases in weight and flavour as it opens up, it’s very much a medium-bodied, simple and elegant wine by Primitivo standards. There’s plenty of punch though with 14.5% alcohol.
This is the perfect drop for spring - such an easy wine to enjoy, especially at this price.
I can offer it for $20 a bottle. Order here