Web Exclusives

Puglia's Wineries Kick into High Gear

Elyse Glickman

The most successful wineries in this agricultural Italian state are working hard at home and abroad to make its reputation as a bulk wine producer ancient history.

Back in 2006, I was invited by the Italian Trade Commission to cover MiWine, a wine and spirits convention in Milan that included an "eno-tour" component to a specific wine production areas in Italy. I was originally signed up to tour the Lombardia region, and then was convinced to visit Calabria instead. However, as there were too many American journalists signed up to Calabria, I was switched out to Puglia.

Vineyard wall at Tormaresca.

It turned out that the real story was not the MiWine show (which only ran a few years), but the Puglia wine region itself, although it had not yet found itself at the time in terms of having a definitive "brand image" American beverage industry professionals and consumers could relate to.

Over the course of five very busy days, my group (which included 40 buyers and wine writers hailing from Denmark, Russia, Egypt, China, India and Japan) visited 20 wineries. Although several estates had product on the U.S. market, others were not as prepared for visiting wine business people as wineries I previously covered in Umbria and Piedmont. Even with the exhaustive itinerary, however, I tasted potential for success in the U.S. market, especially with selections that were very food-friendly and ideal for markets in warmer climates such as California, Arizona and Texas.

Fast-forward to 2013. An opportunity arose to rediscover Puglia's wine industry. The itinerary for the June trip that came with the invitation spoke volumes that much had changed in seven years. A focus on six of its more successful wineries and consortiums (Vigne e Vini, Mottura, Tomaresca, Tenuta Mater Domini, Leone de Castris and Cantine Rivera) represented the Puglian wine industry's more concentrated effort to transform its past reputation as a "bulk wine" industry into greater recognition and respect outside of Italy.

From Bulk to Brilliance

One major aspect of the wineries' individual and collective efforts to bolster Puglia's wine industry to greater prominence is the implementation of new technology. These include more efficient cooling systems, as well wind and solar power systems which are prominently visible at the Tomaresca and Cantine Rivera estates.

"We aim to produce wines that appeal to the modern wine drinker, but maintain the integrity-the perfumes and flavors-of our land during the process," says Tomaresca Export Manager Vito Palumbo.

"We promote the fact that our Masseria Maime Estate in Salento is one of the most innovative wineries in Puglia and Italy, and that our Bocca di Lupo Estate is 100% certified organic. We emphasize sustainability, such as photovoltaic plant on the rooftop of the Bocca di Lupo Estate and a new project that will measure our carbon and water footprint."

While I initially experienced a moment of déjà-vu passing through the gates of Vigne e Vini in Leporano, I was struck by just how much difference seven years made. The changes included cleaner, better organized and expanded production facilities and a beautiful, well-appointed tasting room.

Tormaresca's Maseria Maime Negroamaro

Vigne e Vini Export Sales Director Fabio Cascione.

Export Sales Director Fabio Cascione, however, insisted the beauty of their evolution is more than skin-deep.

Vigne e Vini's "team," overseen by current winery patriarch Cosimo Varvaglione, includes an on-site enologist as well as two major universities (Università di Udine in the Veneto and Università di Bologna)that have worked closely with the winery to improve their wine production standards on their 120 hectare estate.

While the area we are visiting is focused on Primitivo and Negromaro varietals, the company is also going bold in their white production, focusing on indigenous grapes like as Verdeca, related to vermouth grapes, as well as the aromatic Malvasia.  

Vigne e Vini patriarch Cosimo Varvaglione shows improvements at the winery.

"To change international perceptions about our wine, the first step was enhancing our machinery first, then enhancing our research and development elements and hiring the best people to work with us from there," said Cascione.

"Though our university alliances, we can learn more [about what we need to upgrade in production]. As we purchase more advanced equipment, we can better understand how the process can yield better results. You cannot carry on the commerce of good wine without continuous investment, and you have to anticipate needs and trends pointing all your efforts to quality."

Barbara Mottura of Mottura Vini in Tuglie, near the Salento Peninsula, points out the latest investment made by her family's winery has gone into a special training system for the vineyards to ensure optimum growing conditions, especially as temperatures can run as hot as 100°F even during the harvest season.

"Vines, like people, become lazy, so we have to make a greater effort to get the nutrients from the soil to the berries," explains Mottura. "The smaller you keep the bushes, the less the water has to struggle to reach the berries. The leaves on the bushes, meanwhile, protect the grapes from sunburn. This produces lower grape quantities, but better grapes."

Moving on to the harvesting, Mottura added that they've learned that in order to preserve the integrity and flavor of wine grapes, they need to keep them cold and conduct harvesting operations overnight.

  Paquale and Barbara Mottura.

"The first 24 hours of the vinification are critical, and keeping grapes at 0°C ensures clean and clear maceration," she continues. "From there, we keep our production process traditional (such as hand sorting and selecting grapes) but with low temperatures and cold fermentation. We do four months of fermalactic fermentation in new barrels to give more body and a longer shelf life for our whites."

Although Roman and Medieval ruins punctuate the fields cultivated by Tenuta Mater Domini, Marketing Director Andrea Fattizo states that although the brand is relatively new to Puglia's industry (established 2003), they are positioning themselves by combining the legacy of the estate's 400-year history with the very modern demand for a broader diversity of wines made to a much higher standard so wine drinkers can "see the contrast of ancient tradition and modern advances."

Fattizo notes one hook in the company's marketing approach is to point out the winery operations are based in the DOC and IGT Salice Salentino growing areas between the cities of Brindisi and Lecce, shaped by clay-loam soils, 300 days of sunshine per year and salinity imparted by proximity to the Adriatic and Ionic seas.

Marketing Director Andrea Fattizo in the Tenuta Mater Domini.
While the southern tip of Puglia is noted for its output of extremely ripe and sweet indigenous grapes, the winery is creating balanced reds through cultivations on their various estates of Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot.

Tenuta Mater Domini also cultivates fields with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco that are integrated into refreshing and food-friendly whites suited for the earthy, seafood-heavy cuisine of the region. Besides addressing the growing demand for white wines with unexpected flavor notes, they also have five hectares of vineyards designated for more rare indigenous grapes such as Susumaniello, Notardomenico and Nero di Troia that expand their offerings and opportunities to connect with wine aficionados in other parts of the world seeking new things, even from familiar wine production countries.

Tomaresca's Palumbo explains that as great wine cannot be made without great grapes, the winemakers in their consortium pay attention to every detail, from the management of the soil and of the plants, to sustainability and energy/water saving, to the vinification process to double quality control on the bottling line. However, it all needs to be done without compromising Puglia's natural assets as a wine-production area.

"One of our main objectives to produce wines that can be both tasted on their own and savored with food," says Palumbo. "In our production, we work to maintain the natural aromas and flavors of our terroirs. [Thanks to these efforts,] in the last five years, Puglia is more present as a wine region in foreign markets, and the general public is increasingly aware of the quality of our production. We are attracting customers focused on trying new varietals, and the attitude of the average customer is more adventurous.

Vito Palumbo of Tormaresca.

"I like to say that Puglia captures the best aspects of Old World and New World wine, somewhere between Tuscany and Chile!" 

Finding the Future in the Past

Beyond technical and environmental innovation, the representatives from the wineries and consortiums shared the view that the way to move Puglia's wines into the 21st century and higher worldwide esteem was to get back to its roots-but express those roots more effectively in and out of the bottle.

In marketing their wines in Italy, the U.S. and elsewhere, the wineries along with their importers and distributors have taken measures to get industry buyers on and off premise excited about trying their expressions of Negromaro, Primitivo, Nero de Troia and other varietals that help tell the story of a wine area whose production history dates back to the 6th century BCE. 

Mottura's Le Pitre line.

While Mottura is relatively new on the U.S. market, it is taking a focused, methodical approach to establishing itself on our shores. With its importer (Allied Beverage Group), Mottura started the move two years ago offering a limited selection of its better wines to Pennsylvania and New Jersey restaurants and retailers.

This year, they are starting to set their sites on the California market.Even with effective educational tasting events for the trade as well as off-premise samplings, Barbara Mottura says that making only their highest-end lines (Le Pitre and Vini Mottura) with indigenous varietals Negromaro and Primitivo available for now is the best way to get decision-makers to rethink and rediscover Puglia.

"The most effective strategy for us is to focus on these two varietals, and once we become better known we can submit wines with other grape varietals to the U.S. marketplace," says Mottura. "We need to take advantage of the fact that our region is most famous for the harvest of those two grapes and the reds. I feel we will make a greater impact with consumers through our red flagship wines."

While whites are not yet available in the U.S., Mottura notes that their Le Pitre Salento Fiamo will probably be the first white from Mottura for import. While the Fiano varietal is not totally indigenous to the area (it is widely associated with Calabria), what makes it "Apulian" are the clay-loam soils of the Salento area. The result, helped along with their updated production facilities, is a refreshing medium body white with notes of tropical fruit and flowers, a slightly spicy palate and a buttery taste even from the barrels.

A major advantage Mottura says their wines in U.S. distribution have is that they are compatible with the American consumer's palate as well as with a diversity of different kind of foods found on U.S. restaurant menus. "Our wines are not too tannic, and are noted for their clean finishes," she says. Vinge e Vini's Fabio Cascione holds a similar point of view, adding that up-and-coming generation of wine drinkers in the U.S. will also have an impact on how fast the message of Puglia's viability as a wine producer will spread.

"Wine professionals, especially sommeliers, are pursuing fruity, food-friendly wines with rich color and full body," Cascione says. "The younger generation [21-45], whose tastes they are addressing, are moving from soft drinks to wine and gravitate toward something with higher residual sugar and more fruit forward flavors, which are smooth and have a nice balance of natural tannins."

Sebastiano Di Corato, Sales and Marketing Manager of Cantine Rivera, meanwhile, points out that while budget brands like Ecco Domani have offered Primitivo reds for years, this underscores the need of his winery and others to put out "real Apulian wines by real Apulian wine makers out onto the shelves and in the hands of decision makers, and not product using Apulian juice being made elsewhere."

Di Corato further explains that his winery's goal is to craft wines that really tell a story about what Puglian wines are about from a historic and terroir standpoint while also conveying that the wines and grape varietals are also food friendly, versatile and are of the highest quality. The next step is to convince the trade, and the consumers by extension, that their wines are some of the best they have not yet tried. 

"It is an evolving [market], and it is our job to find more adventurous consumers," states Di Corato. "While Puglia's wines still have a prominent value proposition in terms of retail and restaurant prices, we also need to educate the public on the fact that good quality to price ratio does not mean 'cheap wine' as it did when connected to Puglia wine a decade or more ago. Our commitment to producing higher-end wines furthers our interests in building the reputation of our region."

Sebastiano Di Corato  at Cantine Rivera.

Alessandra Leone di Castris.

According to Adriano Sicuro, who heads Leone de Castris' export division, their Five Roses range figures prominently as a leader for Puglia wines in the U.S. market. While they have worked closely with New Jersey-based importer Winebow, and their tastings and seminars are staples on the professional circuit, they are now starting to expand from major markets like Los Angeles and New York and move into second tier markets like Dallas and Nashville.

"Thanks to our efforts and the support Winebow provides us, and recent developments with the other wineries, the reputation of Puglia wines has grown tremendously in the states since 2006," Sicuro informs. "This is due to the passion and sense of duty that we and other producers in Puglia have. This is combined with the improved know-how our wineries have acquired. [With updated machinery], we can express things that set us apart like our culinary heritage and our lands' natural attributes. I believe in our Puglian products because we have proven ourselves, we need to now spread the message." 

Fattizo notes one effective marketing approach is pointing out Tenuta Mater Domini's operations are based in the DOC and IGT Salice Salentino growing areas between the cities of Brindisi and Lecce, shaped by clay-loam soils, 300 days of sunshine per year and salinity imparted by proximity to the Adriatic and Ionic seas. 

"Certainly, the perception of Apulian wine has improved in recent years," says Tenuta Mater Domini's Fattizo. "However, one thing that has been a challenge for us is that the [marketing] of Puglia's wines has been too focused on the grape varieties and not enough on the lands where the vines grow. Although many American consumers and buyers know Negromaro and Primitivo, it is where and how the grapes are grown that will impact the quality of the wine."

While this emphasis helps address what he describes as "a growing demand for white wines with unexpected flavor notes," the climate and soils also benefit their five hectares of vineyards designated for less familiar indigenous grapes such as Susumaniello, Notardomenico and Nero di Troia that expands their offerings beyond Primitivo and Negroamaro.  By putting those varietals in the mix, Fattizo says it expands the winery's "opportunities to connect with wine aficionados in other parts of the world seeking new things, even from familiar wine production countries."  

Tenuta Mater Domini.

Keeping Up with the Tuscanies

Even with high quality wines and better marketing tacks, the wineries and their U.S. interests have to deal with how run with the giants-dominating Italian markets including Tuscany and Piedmonte. The response varies between the wineries, but there is a consensus that they all need to rethink what gets bottled, and where those bottles will head. 

"Rather than selling our bulk product in the north, we are now working to send a message to the world that we are proud of our naturally-sourced products and want to produce the kind of wines that make us proud to put our name and "Puglia" on our bottles and labels," says Vinge e Vini's Cascione.

"If you ask me how we can improve the quality to be more competitive with wines from places like Tuscany and Piemonte, we have to define a style. We also have an ongoing responsibility to get a greater market share through Puglia's distinctive soil and climate attributes, as well as increased attention to detail in their production. Case in point is our Primitivo di Manduria wine from our Papale line, which was promoted heavily during the recent conclave and ascent of Pope Francis."  

Schiaccianoci from Vigne e Vini.

Sicuro notes one philosophy Leone de Castris has adopted is to inform tastemakers in America and elsewhere that they do not produce wines in that way to make them more fashionable, trendy or commercial, but wines that are known for their complexity and versatility.

"Even though we've made some changes in how we do things to keep improving the quality at our estate, we've never lost our sense of direction or focus on making the best wines possible," he affirms. "In the years to come, we believe our focus on quality will pay off. It is just a matter of time and effort in getting the rest of the world tuned in."


Cantine Rivera
U.S. Importer:Bedford International Ltd.

U.S. Importer: Ste. Michelle Wine Estates 

Mottura Vini
U.S. Importer:Allied Beverage Group

Vigne e Vini
U.S. Importer: Devino Wine Importers in Texas
Contact: Arnoldo Palacios, 210-843-8814

Tenuta Mater Domini
U.S. Importer: Soilair Selection

Conti Leone De Castris
U.S. Importer: Winebow, Inc.
Contact: Giuseppe LoCascio, 201-930-2450

For more information, and to organize visits and tours of these and other Puglia wineries, contact the following organizations:

 Wines of Puglia Movimento Turismo del Vino Puglia 

THE TASTING PANEL, 6345 Balboa Blvd, Ste. 111, Encino, CA 91316
Content ©2016 THE TASTING PANEL magazine. All rights reserved