Puglia – the Heel of Italy and the Gem in the Wine Collection

Well, that’s in my opinion anyway and I’m not an expert by any means. I’m not on my own though. Having for a while had a pretty poor reputation for only producing wines suitable for blending, Puglia is now regarded by wine experts as one of the best quality and value wine regions in Italy. Known principally for the excellently smooth Primitivo, the region has often been overlooked as a travel destination in the past due to its lack of big-name cities and distinctly local feel. But that’s changing, in part due to an increasing awareness of just what Puglia can offer – fantastic rustic food, beautiful rural scenery, historic cities, and beaches that could rival those of Greek islands. And, of course, the delicious wine.

So, back in March, I went with a group of friends on an impromptu road trip to the heel of Italy to do some tastings and generally take in everything Puglia has to offer which, believe me, is a lot. This was my second trip to Puglia and I have a lot to say about the place itself which I’ll save for another blog post soon. For now though, let’s talk about wine…

Wine (and olive oil incidentally) is produced across the whole region of Puglia. Sadly though, we only had a couple of days to visit, and so we concentrated our wine tastings to the south of the region, the Salento Peninsula. Here the Baroque city of Lecce is the main draw for visitors (for good reason too). The towns and fields surrounding are filled with vineyards and wineries, famous for producing, among others, the DOC Primitivo di Manduria, a wine made from the same grape as California’s famous Zinfandel.

Our first stop was at Cantele, just outside Guagnano, a little town less than 15 miles outside of Lecce. Housed in an impressive traditional white building, Cantele is a family winery that is gaining a growing reputation in quality wine-making. We had made a reservation just the day before to have a guided tour of the winery and a guided tasting, an experience lasting over 1.5 hours for the very reasonable cost of 10euros.

 We started our wine tour just after lining our stomachs with an excellent lunch at L’Orecchietta, a canteen style restaurant with wonderful food just a few minutes from the winery. Federica was our knowledgeable and accommodating guide who took the time to explain the history and workings of the winery, let alone guide us through very generous tastings of their excellent wine. Stand-out wines among our group were the Teresa Manara Negroamaro, a very drinkable yet bold red made of 100% negroamaro grapes, and the excellent Fanòi, a slightly pricier velvety red made of 100% primitivo grapes which, believe me, was worth every penny.

Feeling a little tipsy and wholeheartedly grateful to the designated driver, we moved on to our next wine tasting at Leone de Castris in Salice Salentino, the town after which the wine is named. We didn’t have a booking for this winery (and we were a little late arriving) so, unfortunately, we weren’t able to do the guided tour of the winery or visit the wine museum situated in the same building. However, the winery has a lovely little shop on the main street and the lady inside happily accommodated our request to try some of the wines. After sampling a few of their many wines, we decided as a group that the Messapia Verdeca, a flowery, fragrant white made of verdeca grapes, and the Salice Salentino, a blackberry-like red made by Leone de Castris since the 1950s, were our favourites. That’s not to say that their others weren’t excellent, just that we’d reached our wine tasting quota for the day and were desperately in need of water rather than more wine! I’d definitely recommend returning at the start of a wine-tasting day though as I suspect their other wines would be great.

After dinner and a much needed night’s rest in Lecce, we started on our way to Martina Franca in the area of the traditional trulli houses via a slight detour to our third and last wine tasting in Manduria, the area known for Primitivo di Manduria DOC wine, which can only be produced in the area. This was a slightly different style of tasting being not at a winery as such, but at a wine consortium, the Consorzio Prodottori Vini. Formed in the 1930s by a group of wine-makers keen to produce quality primitivo wines from the area, the consortium now produces a range of high-quality wines from grapes harvested from vineyards in the area.

The Consorzio centre features a museum detailing the ways wine is produced locally, an area to buy wine both in bottles and on tap, and a tasting room. Usually you need to make a booking in order to do a tasting, but we were lucky and were able to turn up on a cool, quiet March day without a reservation. Yet again, the stand-out feature of these Pugliese wine tastings were how accommodating the wineries were, and how incredibly generous they were with their portions. We tried a number of the lovely wines, many of which are variations on the standard primitivo, from Madrigale, a sweet dessert primitivo, to Lyrica, a spicy primitivo aged for 3 years in oak barrels, as well as a lovely negroamaro/primitivo blend called Abatemasi.

And so we finished our wine tastings there with some fuzzy heads, smiles on our faces and a car boot full of wine to savour another day. Wine tasting in Puglia is very much like the place itself for me – simple, friendly, good quality and a taste of the real Italy. If you like wine, I’d thoroughly recommend it!

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