Guide to Southern Italy I: Puglia and Sicily

The New Big Italian Red Wines

Reds imported from Sicily and Puglia are quickly growing in popularity. These wines are often modern, fruit-driven styles that are comfortable to American drinkers, at prices that afford exploration. I call southern Italian reds  “cross-over wines,” because a juicy Primitivo or Nero d’Avola is capable of winning over even the staunchest drinkers of big Californian wines.

Boutique production is on the rise in this area, though this is a relatively new phenomenon. The south is still a large-scale producer of cheap blending wine. Bulk blending wine isn’t bottled under its own label, but is usually sent north to be added into thin, underachieving wines. While wine production in these two regions ranks among the highest in Italy, a very low amount is legally recognized as quality: Only about 5% of wine in Puglia is classified as DOC, and 1% in Sicily. Though the amount may be relatively small, many of these quality wines have recently drawn international attention and acclaim.

Economic progress came late to southern Italy. Here is a brief overview of how things have developed:

Pre-WWII Italy was an agricultural economy. Land ownership was in the hands of a wealthy elite. In the north, a sharecropper system was used, called the mezzadria, where farmers could keep some of their own product. In the south, an oppressive system known as latifondo was in place, where the farmers were treated more like slaves by landowners.

Post-WWII  The Italian government made a push to modernize and industrialize the country. Agrarian reforms were introduced, and land was redistributed from the landowners to the peasant class. Political corruption was rampant in this process, however, and many of the land holdings were too small to support the farmers. Large amounts of the poor farming class moved north to the cities or emigrated from Italy.

The North-South Divide  The north rapidly industrialized, joining the ranks of other European nations. Projects in the south were less successful, and the government provided farming subsidizes to keep communities alive. The government financed new vineyards and supported local cooperative wineries where farmers could sell their grapes. These cantine sociali, or cooperative wineries, had existed since the 19th century, but proliferated during the 1960s and ’70s, giving farmers a means to subsist. Unfortunately quantity over quality was the result of these government projects, and Italy developed a reputation for cheap, bland wine.

Today: The domestic and international market can not continue to support this wash of cheap, low-quality wine. And while Sicily and Puglia still produce a large amount of bulk wine, the focus is shifting toward the high-quality market:

  • The European Union instituted vine pull schemes to reduce total vineyard areas. They currently offer subsidies to help farmers restructure and modernize their vineyards
  • The EU doesn’t allow new vineyard plantings (though this may soon change) but estates may purchase existing vineyard land. This has attracted investors and large firms like Antinori into the area. Many farmers are willing to sell, since the co-op subsidies are now largely gone. Vineyard land in the south is a fraction of the price of more “prestigious” vineyard land in the north
  • There is demand for modern, bold red wines. Indigenous varieties like Nero d’Avola and Negroamaro have flavor profiles that are popular in the current market

Puglia: Terroir

Terra rossa in Salento, Puglia
L’Astore Masseria

Puglia is a hot, flat, fertile plain, that produces primarily olives, wheat and grapes. The region is famous for its terra rossa, or red earth, consisting of a top layer of iron rich clay and base of limestone. The minerals in the soil give intensity and flavor to the grapes, and the limestone provides excellent drainage. Puglia has great potential but still mainly produces bulk wine and cheap bottled wine.

Puglia has one DOCG: Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale, a sweet version of the DOC wine, Primtivo di Manduria.

There is an array of DOC wines produced, but here are a few of the most common seen on the market:

Primitivo di Manduria The town of Manduria is in the west of the Salento peninsula. The rosso is 100% Primitivo and spends seven months in oak

Salice Salentino  Salice Salentino is a town in the middle of the Salento peninsula of Puglia. This wine contains at least 80% Negroamaro. The remaining 20% is typically Malvasia nera di Lecce or Malvasia nera di Brindisi

Castel del Monte  The rosso contains at least 65% Nero di Troia, Aglianico, or Montepulciano

More photos of Puglia

Left: Tormaresca, an example of wealthy investment in Puglia. The famous Antinori family of Tuscany started this project in 1998
Right: Masseria Li Veli. This property was purchased by the Falvo family in 1999. The cellar is built on top of a late Medieval ruin

Sicily: Terroir

Ruin of the Temple of Segesta on Monte Pispisa, Sicily Source

Sicily is full of contrasts. The land near the sea is incredibly dry and hot, with sandy soils; the slopes of snow-capped Mount Etna are cooler, and the soils black and volcanic. The island’s products include oranges, lemons, almonds, olives, capers, artichokes, and wheat. Sicily’s first widely recognized grape product was sweet Marsala wine. Though Marsala is not as popular as it once was, a large portion of the region’s grapes still go to production of this wine.

Sicily’s transition to the modern wine market has been more successful than Puglia’s. “Cool” boutique wines have grabbed the spotlight, such as Occhipinti. Nero d’Avola, one of the region’s most famous and widely planted grapes, is often compared to the international favorite Syrah. Nero d’Avola is sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot for powerful, internationally appealing reds.

Sicilian wines are often bottled under an IGT Sicily label. Producers will opt to use this term if they believe it will carry more prestige then their local DOC.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, introduced in 2005, is the only Sicilian DOCG. It is a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato, a lighter, fruitier grape. Cerasuolos are generally the lightest of the Nero d’Avola-based blends in Sicily.

Left: A modern style DOCG Cerasuolo from La Planeta
Right: Artful, biodynamic, and naturally-made Nero d’Avola by Occhipinti, labeled as IGT Sicilia

Etna DOC  Etna Rosso is the primary wine from this DOC. The wine is predominately Nerello Mascalese, blended with up to 20% Nerello Cappuccio, and is lighter bodied, acidic, and pinot noir-like. The aromatics and acidity of this delicate style are possible because of the cooling influence of the altitude.

Also notable are the soils of Mount Etna; they are black, filled with minerals from past lava flows.

Pietradolce won Tre Bicchieri for the 2007 “Archineri” Etna Ross0, this wine’s first vintage. The property has Nerello Mascalese vines that are 50-60 years old

The main white grapes to know are Inzolia and Grecanico, two native varietals, and Chardonnay. Catarratto is also widely planted but used in simple white wines or for Marsala. Chardonnay is popular at the moment, as the dry heat brings out intense, luscious, tropical fruit flavors.

Malvasia delle Lipari DOC  Grown on the Aeolian island of Lipari, this is a famous nectar-like dessert wine with orange and floral characteristics.

More Photos of Sicily

Feudi del Psiciotto makes modern, boutique wines with extracted fruit and heavy oak. Each label is named after a designer, and is classified as IGT Sicilia
Left: “Carolina Marengo” 100% Frappato
Right: “Versace” 100% Nero d’Avola

Next read about Puglia and Sicily grape varietals:

From the Grape Files: Indigenous Southern Italian Varietals I

Then take the Puglia and Sicily quiz!


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