David 3 September 2015
With my last offer being Brunello, it’s time for something a little more affordable. And one of the best regions for everyday quaffers is Puglia (anglicised name Apulia), located in the very southeast corner of the ‘high heel’ of Italy. It stretches about 320km along the Adriatic coast, as far as the Salento Peninsula, protruding into the Adriatic and Ionia Seas. Also, it has no relevance to this article at all but I was surprised to come across the town of Gallipoli on the south-western coast of the peninsula… great for your next trivia night.
Puglia is a beautiful place with sun-bleached landscapes stunning coastline, as well as olive groves and of course vines. Despite the attractions, people seem 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 and nowdays it’s 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.
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. There are about 250,000 acres of vines, which according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, puts Puglia on a par with Sicily and second to Veneto in terms of overall production in Italy. Not only that, Puglia is responsible for half of Italy’s olive oil.
The grape variety best known in Puglia is Primitivo. Originally from Croatia and known as Tribidrag, this grape usually producesfull-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.” WineGrapes, 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.
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.
Puglian wines 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.
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 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 such sentimental outbursts, 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, mid-way 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. Being Italy, 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. But there’s no literature that seems to verify this.
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 - wow! 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.
A Mano Primitivo 2012
The 2012 vintage is one of the best A Mano has made, the main reason being the perfect weather. As Mark notes;
“it was the perfect red grape harvest in Puglia… we enjoyed a beautiful long summer. The month of August was beautifully hot and dry and breezy, but most of all the entire month of September was glorious with cool and dry evenings and long warm days that allowed us to let our Primitivo grapes ripen slowly and evenly.” Put simply there were long, warm, but not too hot days and cool, dry evenings.
The fruit for this wine comes from several local growers with 70 to 100-year-old vines. The grapes were picked in early September, before being crushed and refrigerated and for the first time fermentation was carried out traditionally using wild yeasts on the grape skins. The ferment was kept cool (16°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 was given prior to bottling.
The wine is a crystal clear, dark plum colour with a slight brickiness on the edge. On the nose it’s aromatic with plenty of sweet fruit, cherries, strawberries and that typical Italian savouriness.
Mark has made a real effort to change to a leaner style of Primitivo over the past 5 years and it seems the perfect vintage conditions of 2012 along with the combination of traditional and modern techniques have worked a treat in creating a refined style not usually associated with the traditionally rough-hewn Primitivo.
It impresses on the palate with its smooth mouthfeel. Notes of bright, fresh forest fruits - cranberry, raspberry and cherry, balanced by good acid and a subtle earthy finish. The tannins are very fine and 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 at 13.5% alcohol.
This is the perfect drop for the onset of spring, such an easy wine to enjoy, especially at this price. You’ll find it at the wonderful ‘Pilu at Freshwater’ for $56.
I can offer it for $22 a bottle. SOLD OUT.