How 1,000 Farmers & 1 Female Winemaker Are Changing Pugliese Wine

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Cantine San Marzano)

When you think about Italian wine, Puglia is not a region that comes to mind. Tuscany, yes. Veneto, Piedmont, Emilio Romagna … but Puglia? Not so much. But Puglia is responsible for approximately 14 percent of Italy’s wine production and is the country’s second largest wine-producing region.

This statistic is slightly misleading, however, as only 3 percent of D.O.C. wines come from Puglia. What’s the difference? D.O.C. means controlled designation of origin and is a measure of quality. It excludes cooking wines, wines used for vinegar, and some table wines. And if you’ve tried wine from Puglia before, chances are, you were drinking some of those poor-quality wines.

But one winery, bringing together more than 1,000 growers and a female winemaker, is looking to change that.

(Image credit: Cantine San Marzano)

First: A Brief History of Puglia and Its Wine

Located at the very southern end of Italy, making up the heel of the boot, the coastal region is known for sun, sea, and wind. As it turns out, this combination is very good for growing grapes, in particular three grapes: Primitivo, the signature grape, which also goes by a name you might be more familiar with, Zinfandel; Negroamaro; and Malvasia Nera.

It also turns out that growing grapes is something the Pugliesi have been doing for a very long time. “When the Primitivo grape was brought over by the Croatian people, they found vines already existing,” explains Salvatore Ricciardi, commercial director & sales and marketing manager for San Marzano Wines (not related to the tomatoes).

But while the tradition of growing grapes may be ancient, bottling is a much newer practice. Until recently, Ricciardi says, the majority of grapes grown in Puglia were sold to other wine regions — like Veneto, Tuscany, and Piedmont — and whatever was left behind was not very good (and produced some not-very-good wine.)

The reason Pugliese farmers sold grapes to their northern neighbors is relatively straightforward, at least as Ricciardi explains it: In Puglia, viticulture is cheap and the region is poor. The small-time growers were happy to get what they got for their grapes.

(Image credit: Cantine San Marzano)

The New Pugliese Wine You Should Know About

While Puglia still exports about half of its wines to other regions, the balance is shifting as more and more private wineries open. “It’s all made by young people,” Ricciardi says. “The younger generation is coming up with new ideas and trying to go to market with their own wines.”

San Marzano was the first to start making a new style (read: an actually good style) of wine when it opened in 1962. The winery is actually a collective of more than 1,000 different growers, most of whom are tiny — really tiny.

Most families in Puglia have what Ricciardi refers to as a “Greek garden” (i.e., a plot where grapes and olive trees grow together): “It’s olive trees and vineyards mixed up and it’s impossible to work with a machine. They do it during the week with family.”

(Image credit: Cantine San Marzano)

These family farms provide the grapes for winemaker Caterina Bellanova, a trained biologist who is turning out wines that are juicy and fruit-forward, but also restrained.

The heat of the region means the grapes get very ripe — which means lots of sugar and, potentially, lots of alcohol. Bellanova stops the fermentation around 13.5 percent ABV, which isn’t super low, but it’s not 15 or 16 percent you might see from a California Zin. Add in the sea breeze for acidity and you have elegant, balanced wines.

And, luckily for us, the Pugliese collective is making a push into the United States market with a selection of its wines, including the infinitely drinking and very affordable Talò wines, which are named after one of the founding families.

Find Talò wines: The Talò wines are primarily available in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, but are also available at stores that can ship including Get Wine Online, Spirit Boss, and Saratoga Wine Exchange.

(Image credit: Borgo Egnazia)

If You Want to Go to Puglia …

You could also visit Puglia and drink the wines amid the terroir. The region is a rising tourism destination with white sand beaches, quiet villages, and what Ricardi calls a “real Italian feeling.” Be warned, though: That real Italian feeling means that English is not likely to be spoken.

The best way to get there is to fly into Bari or Brindisi (connecting flights are available via Rome) and, in terms of accommodation, there are a handful of high-end hotels and masserias, mansions converted into private hotels. The most famous place to stay is the Borgo Egnazia, which sits directly on the Adriatic. Its more affordable sister hotel, Masseria Le Carrube, is a mile or so inland, and has a more subdued beauty.

The food is simple — fish, vegetables, cheese, olive oil, and bread (including altamura, the only protected bread in Italy) — and midday siestas are typical (which also means late dinners). If you’re hoping to visit wineries, however, it’s best to call in advance; wine tourism is still new to Puglia.

Ready to pack your bags? I know I am!