Negroamaro. A compound word meaning, depending on who you ask, black and bitter, or just black. A dark-skinned grape from the heel of Italy's boot that makes a deeply colored, often rustic red wine. …
Negroamaro. A compound word meaning, depending on who you ask, black and bitter, or just black. A dark-skinned grape from the heel of Italy's boot that makes a deeply colored, often rustic red wine. Although rarely bottled on its own, it is regarded as one of Puglia's noblest varietals, making some of its highest quality and most interesting wines.
For a region known for having a glut of grapes (more than three-quarters of the grapes from Puglia are diverted into distilled liquor or grape concentrate), this is perhaps dubious praise. But several factors combine to set the produce of Negroamaro apart from many other wines made in southern Italy.
First, the vast majority of soils in southern Italy are volcanic; vast swaths of vineyards climb the sides of volcanoes like Mount Vulture and Mount Etna. The southern part of Apulia, Salento--the peninsula that forms the heel of boot--is the only part of southern Italy that is not geologically active. Rather than volcanic, the soil is mainly limestone, a substrate prized for its suitability for viticulture in cool climates.
Cool climates, you say? But we're talking about southern Italy here! That's another thing about Salento. While Puglia is one of the hottest regions in the country, because Salento is a narrow peninsula with the Adriatic Sea on one side and the Ionian Sea on the other, cooling sea breezes create a milder climate ideal for balanced grape ripening.
This combination of unusual environmental factors, along with a couple of other interesting grape varietals (including Primitivo, better known in the United States as Zinfandel), has led to increased interest and investment in wines from Puglia. The region now has 30 DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a designation that serves as an assurance of quality, at least in theory), including Salice Salentino, a premier producer of Negroamaro-based wines.
The 2011 Mocavero Negroamaro Salice Salentino Riserva Puteus ($29/750ml bottle) spends time in oak barrels before bottling, a costly measure not frequently used in budget-friendly Puglia, but one that lends depth and grip to a wine, as well as contributing to its ageability. Composed of 80 percent Negroamaro and 20 percent Malvasia Nera (another "black" grape), the wine is spicy, with leather, cedar and plenty of black cherry and ripe wild strawberry aromas. On the palate it turns meaty, with velvet tannins and a graphite core.
Alas for us in Northern New Mexico, most DOC wines from Puglia other than Salice Salentino are difficult to find. But that doesn't mean that there aren't solid wines to be found from broader categories of classification, such as those designated IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica, akin to France's erstwhile vin de pays, or country wine, category).
The 2016 Masseria Li Veli Salento Primonero ($16) takes its name from its 50/50 proportion of Primitivo and Negroamaro. Many of the aromas are similar to those of the Puteus, with cedar and ripe cherry in the mix, but this expression turns juicier on the palate (that's probably the Primitivo talking), with loads of blackberry and bramble, and a peppery finish. Tannins are mild, making this an easy, medium-bodied sipper, unusual for both of the grapes involved.
Standing apart from the more traditional expressions in the Puteus and the Primonero, 2015 Gran Appasso Puglia ($17) lets Primitivo take the primary role; however, Negroamaro isn't really playing second fiddle, even at only 30% of the blend. That's because the winemakers have borrowed a technique from the Valpolicella region of northeast Italy, wherein the Negroamaro grapes are dried before they are pressed.
This process, called appassimiento, concentrates sugar and flavor in the grape. While some of appassimiento-style wines of Valpolicella take on a raisiny, almost dusty flavor, the Gran Appasso tastes of ripe blueberries and vanilla, but also of roasted meat, smoke, black pepper and balsam to give it a savory edge.
Each of these wines drinks far above its price tag--a testament to the value for money of many southern Italian wines. And they're versatile, too. Inexpensive and accessible enough for a weeknight dinner of pizza or spaghetti and meatballs, but with enough depth, power and beauty to take on the noblest cuts of meat. Negroamaro will definitely be increasingly present in my repertoire from now on.
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