I've just had a break from the Languedoc and spent four days in the heel of Italy discovering the delights of Puglia's indigenous grape varieties, Negroamaro, Nera di Troia and Primitivo. You may well be forgiven for asking what Puglia has to do with the Languedoc, but I believe that there are interesting parallels to be drawn.
There is a similarity of history. Both regions were despised, and both produced enormous quantizes of basic wine with no distinguishing features. The wines of the Languedoc provided sustenance for the miners of northern France. Those of Puglia traveled the length of Italy to provide colour and alcohol for wines that were lacking those two key attributes of a red wine. The early DOCs allowed for a percentage of wine from elsewhere, but happily things began to change. However, until Chianti became a DOCG - guaranteed as well as controlled - it was perfectly possible and legal to include a generous dollop of Primitivo in your Chianti. When the laws changed, Puglia lost its key market and the more forward looking producers realised that something had to be done.
And the change in the wines of Puglia has been dramatic. I remember my first visit to Puglia, some 20 years ago; it was virtually impossible to find a bottle labeled Primitivo. It originates in Croatia across the Adriatic - it is a short hop across the water. Rather longer is the journey to California and the transformation into Zinfandel, which paved the way for the international recognition of Primitivo.
These days there is an abundance of choice, and styles. Primitivo is a wonderfully versatile variety; you may make it white, pink, novello, firmly dry and with varying degrees of sweetness. Even some of the drier wines have a little residual sugar. It is all a question of balance, that the alcohol and ripe fruit should be in harmony. Negroamaro is also rich and powerful with ripe brambly fruit, while Nero di Troia, a late ripening variety retains freshness with lower levels of alcohol.
As in the Languedoc the wine growers are learning to master the use of oak for ageing, with barriques, both French and American, and larger barrels and even larger casks. They realise that they must take care not to mask the intrinsic fruit, but as in the Languedoc they don't always get it quite right. Some of the most delicious Primitivo come Polvanera. They are refreshingly unoaked redolent with cherry liqueur fruit and quite belying their 14⁰, 15⁰ or 16⁰ degrees of alcohol. Helpfully Filippo Casaro names each cuvée according to its alcohol level.
And in the vineyard there are other parallels. Puglia boasts some wonderful old vines, old albarello vines, which are similar to the gobelet bush vines of the Languedoc. These too were disappearing, being pulled up, like Carignan and others, with the encouragement of EU subsidies. Happily, as in the Languedoc, there has been a realisation of the wonderful quality of these venerable old vines. And like the Languedoc they are discovering other varieties that were also in danger of disappearing. Bombino Nero makes delicious rosato, Susumaniello can be pink, fizzy or red. They have realised that Fiano Minutolo has nothing to do with the Fiano of Campania, but is a variety all of its own, with some intriguing Muscat notes, not unlike Torrontes from Argentina. There is Aglianico, which is usually blended, and also Montepulciano, at its best blended with Nero di Troia in Rivera’s inspiring Il Falcone. Other good Nera di Troia comes from Torrevento, Cefalicchio and Spagnoletti Zeuli.
Nor has Puglia escaped from international varieties, I won't go as far as to say the curse of international varieties, but Chardonnay in Puglia has to be harvested in early August as opposed to Bombino Bianco which waits happily until the end of September. And the blends of Negroamaro or Nero di Troia with Cabernet Sauvignon seemed muddily international and lacking a sense of place compared to the intrinsic italianness of a pure Nero di Troia. It is all a question of confidence. Tuscany thought it needed international varieties, so did the Languedoc, and so does Puglia, but as it comes of age, so will come the realisation that Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Negroamaro can stand alone. Do go and try and them. You will be richly rewarded.