In the heel of Italy, a small revolution in wine is taking place: a shift from mass market to small production. The flight to quality has already begun in Puglia. The brilliant light, the olive trees, the white stone and the iron-rich soil have always given this fertile plain an abundance of grapes. At times, perhaps, too great an abundance, for Puglia was known as a region that produced large volumes of wine, very little of which spoke with any distinction of what the soils could do. There were exceptions, like the dry rosé wines: the first to be bottled locally.
The changes in Puglia have come quickly, owing to a recognition that care must be taken to cultivate the abundance wisely. Careful selection and improved technique have led to this surge in quality, and the realisation that fine wines can be made here has led in turn to an influx of winemakers buying land at affordable prices. People are calling Puglia the new California.
Vines have long grown in Puglia’s fertile soil, with the red clay producing the riches and the limestone draining the vines to promise wines with good acidity and grip. And now, with the help of careful winemakers, advanced techniques and much shared knowledge, we are beginning to see the essence of the region and its wines.
Expectations are high. But expectations, like the vines, must be carefully managed. Growing wines that are well made but that show nothing of their origin will do nothing to perpetuate a region and its wine culture. So, as usual in good winemaking, there is the need to balance tradition with innovation.
Tradition resides both in human practice and in the materials fashioned into wines. These include the soils, the vines and the varietals, and in Puglia, as in so many parts of Italy, a wide range of grape varietals is kept alive to express difference and distinction. In this region, negroamaro, primitivo (the progenitor of zinfandel), aglianico, bombino nero and many more varietals thrive. What you find in these grapes, grown in this place, will express difference. Not all the wines will be great, but their variety will challenge us as tasters to exercise our powers of discrimination and revise our expectations.
Expectations shape what we taste, what we like and find palatable. If our expectations are neutral, we can feel surprise and sometimes delight when we taste a new dish or a new wine. But if expectations are set they can greatly influence how we rate what we are tasting.
The challenge for Puglia is to change people’s expectations of the region while preserving traditional winemaking, including the tradition of producing very fine, perfumed, dry rosé wines. To enhance the reputation of the region Puglia has to confront people’s prejudices about rosé. Expectations for the region and expectations of rosé are bound up together.
The prejudice about rosé is that its pleasures are entirely context driven. We imagine sitting at the shore, enjoying the sun, the sea, the salty mouthfuls of squid, offset by flavours of cherry and grenadine in the wine. Surely, much of the pleasure comes from the setting and not the contents of the condensation-frosted bottle in the ice bucket. Very often that’s right, but not all rosé wines are mere accompaniments to halcyon days. It is a difficult wine to make. It takes skill and timing to leave the pressed grape juice in contact with the skins just long enough to bleed colour and impart flavour. Views differ on how long skin contact should last, and so we see everything from the cherry pink and Campari-red of the Puglia rosati, to the pale salmon pink, or onion skin colour of Provençal rosés.
Colour is one thing, flavour is another, and what makes Puglia wines (like Bandol wines) so different from other rosé wines is the use of firmer grapes like negroamaro— a grape which, like mourvedre in Bandol, produces powerful reds with tannic structure but in rosé gives extra bite. These are food wines that combine the heady perfume of fruit with flavours of cherry, spice and orange rind.
At their best, they are fully satisfying and complete wines. Puglia will need them to assert the reputation of the region but also to change people’s perceptions of rosé. We should have such wines at our tables, and not just during the summer. Expectations are high, but Puglia may just deliver.