Changing Puglia’s Fortunes
Making wine can be expensive. It’s a well-known fact that most winemakers prefer to drive late-model European sports cars, so winery owners are obligated to pay them accordingly. This is but one of many expenses that makes wine cost so much at retail…that and the dozens of $900 oak barrels purchased every year, the $100,000 de-stemming machine and the litany of other items required these days to produce quality wines.
And while we are listing all the stuff that costs so much, how about all those grapes winemakers throw away in the middle of the summer in the pursuit of quality. The practice is called “thinning.” It intensifies and multiplies the flavors of the remaining grapes, which are harvested in the autumn. It also reduces the number of bottles you can make and sell.
Producing wine of even moderate quality is most certainly a rich person’s game. This is why there were very few Italian wines of quality until recently.
Perhaps more than any other European country, Italy was devastated after World War II and pretty much stayed that way for a long time. A full 25 years after the fighting stopped in Europe in 1945, many Italians didn’t enough lire to put food on the table, let alone spend a few pennies more to buy better wines. The same was true for wine producers. They could not afford new French oak barrels and to drop perfectly good fruit in the vineyard was considered wasteful, if not lunacy. In short, if it was Italian, it was plentiful but cheap in every sense of the word.
So, when Piero Antinori started ripping up perfectly good vineyards to plant cabernet sauvignon and barrel aging his new wine, Tignanello, in 1971, his counterparts figured the end of the 600-year-old family business was near. After all, who would buy this pricey stuff at $10 a bottle? But while Italy wallowed in poverty, the rest of the world, especially America, saw more prosperity; Antinori thought there was an export market for quality Italian wines. He was right. (Suggested retail for the 2006 Tignanello: $120.)
Antinori’s long march toward quality, world-class wines resurrected the nearly forgotten noble wine traditions of Tuscany. It also provided an inspirational guiding light for winemakers throughout Italy who bristled at their country’s image as producers of uninspired plonk.
In many ways, the march continues. Impoverished regions in and around the southern tier of the boot, like Sicily, Campania and Puglia are rethinking what varieties they are growing; how and where grapes are grown; and investing in modern winemaking methods. And as he did nearly 40 years ago, Antinori—and now his three daughters—has his finger in the pie of Puglia’s impending resurgence.
Puglia comprises the heel of Italy’s boot and remains one of Italy’s poorest regions. It has been producing wines for thousands of years and has the potential to make wines as good as any other region…if not for the small problem of coming up with the dough to turn things around.
Enter rich Uncle Piero. He has entered the region by building Tomaresca winery with the idea of re-introducing Puglia’s wines to the world. The estate produces two wines, a white and a red, using mostly unknown native grapes like fiano, negroamaro and primativo. As he did with Tignanello, he has also introduced international grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, into the mix.
It’s hard to say why he added new grapes to ancient blends. It could be to add a sophisticated note to the wines, maybe to gain a better acceptance by the American market or, perhaps, just to drive the purists crazy. In any case, these are lovely, interesting, food-friendly wines. They should be sought out, if not for their tasty characteristics, then for their very affordable price: $13.
Could these wines foretell the resurgence of Apulian winemaking? That’s hard to say. Skeptics are abundant as they ever were, so I’m sure there are doubters. We’ll have to wait and see how the fortunes of Puglia fare. With the advantage of hindsight, however, I wish I was in Florence’s Piazza Antinori for the inaugural release of Tignanello just to see all the naysayers…and to pick up a case or two.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Two Thumbs Up
• Lots of aromas of oak, smoke, licorice and ripe plum, in addition some tart cherry after it opened up. Complex, intriguing flavors of licorice, dry cherry, blueberry, mint and dark cola/root beer with a subtle, enticing bitterness.
• Two Thumbs Up
• Quite aromatic with scents of gardenias, green apples, pears and a talc-like mineral quality. Flavors are sharp and tart, full of lemon, key lime, apricot and new Bosc pears.
(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)