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The Messy Heel Of Italy’s Boot

17 September 2011

When writing about a wine for this blog, I like to do a little casual research, consulting the tomes weighing down the coffee table. Usually I find they’re in general agreement about a particular varietal or region and I glean various complementary tidbits of information from each.

However, in the case of Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, my two favorite sources conflicted so completely, I didn’t know what to think. Both The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson and The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson agree that “a great many ordinary wines are still produced” (Stevenson) in Puglia. Beyond that, it’s as if I were reading about two different wine regions.

Stevenson concedes that in the 1970’s, most of Puglia’s wines “were seen fit only for blending or for making vermouth,” but he strikes a much more optimistic tone than Robinson, noting that Puglian winemakers “radically” transformed the industry and “various changes have greatly improved the situation.” Lower yielding varieties have been introduced, he explains, and winemakers moved “away from the single-bush cultivation, known as alberello, to modern wire-trained systems.” All in all, Puglia shows “renewed promise.”

Robinson sounds an altogether more pessimistic note, mourning the demise of single-bush cultivation. She points out how “Many growers have taken subsidies from the European Union to grub up their vineyards but, unfortunately, many of these were of low-yielding bushvines, while those remaining tend to be high-cropping inferior varieties planted on fertile soils.” Even in DOC zones, “High yields are the rule, and a significant number of DOCs have lost credibility with excessively tolerant production limits.”

What to think? I turned to my old standby, André Dominé’s Wine, for a tie-breaking opinion. He agrees that well-intended European Union subsidies have only made matters worse in Puglia: “Instead of converting their large-scale industrial vineyards to other uses, [Puglia’s] growers have abandoned their old, high-quality vines which were planted on awkward sites in the hills.” Dominé goes on to argue that Puglia “resembles a gigantic wine factory instead of a well-kept wine cellar.” Yikes.

Both Robinson and Dominé point out that only 2% of Puglia’s wines have DOC status, which gives me some confidence that these can be counted on to have some measure of quality. If the Salice Salentino I reviewed in the previous post is any indication, it is possible to get decent Puglian wine at rock-bottom prices.

But with 24 other DOCs, picking a winning wine from Puglia is a complicated business. Fortunately, with bottles like the Salice Salentino costing just $7, it’s not much of a risk to give one a try.

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