Today, in addition to continuing my discussion about the state of the Puglian wine industry, I’ll also be taking a look at some of the perennial next greatest unknown wines of Italy: Aglianico. I was fortunate to taste these wines, as well as the Puglian wines in previous reports, courtesy of the 2010 Radici Wine Festival, which was held in November to coincide with the release of the current edition of Radici’s guide to Puglian wines.
Some of you might be wondering why I’m talking about a grape more closely associated with Basilicata, but the truth is the province of Puglia is long and almost surrounds some of the great wine regions of Basilicata. Yes, there is Aglianico in Puglia, as well as Aglianico made in Puglia from vines across the provincial boundary. So, whether you consider it to be a Puglian grape or not, there are Puglian wines to be considered.
In some ways Aglianico is emblematic of where Puglian wine has been, where it is today, and where it is headed in the future. Aglianico is an ancient grape, very possibly brought to Italy by the ancient Greeks and inheriting its name from the name “Ellenico,” or "Greek." Jeremy Parzen’s fine article on the topic can be found at Aglianico ≠ Ellenico? on Do Bianchi.
While the name's origins are fascinating, it’s the color, alcohol and polyphenolic richness that concern us here. Aglianico has a history as a blending grape precisely because it has so much to offer. In some ways it actually has too much to offer, and might be best blended to help soften its robust character. But the trend of the day is to bottle it on its own, and from a single vineyard if possible.
I’m not saying that this is right or wrong, only that we are in the midst of a learning adventure -- as producers take wines that were once used to augment the wines, very frequently, of other more illustrious regions, and try to make them their own. We have moved from one extreme to another and only now are seeing this mature yet dynamic market segment discovering its new medium. In addition to Aglianico, many blended wines are playing a role in this transformation of the Puglian winescape. I’ve included reviews of these wines in today’s feature.
Puglia has long been a land of bulk wine production or the previously mentioned vino da taglio production. This had as much to do with luck as intent. Not only is Puglia blessed with a rather comfortable climate for grape-growing, but it is also home to many indigenous grape varieties that produce powerful, dark, alcoholic wines -- perfect for enriching a lighter, cooler-climate wine if that’s your thing.
Because of this reliance on bulk wine production, many vineyards were planted with clones of grapes that stressed productivity: that is, quantity over quality. While in production as bulk wine producers, these vines tended to be used for as long as possible since they didn’t easily support their wholesale replanting and few winemakers were enthusiastic about the prospect of three years without a crop.
This left Puglia in a difficult, but not impossible, position. With all those old vines there was certainly the promise of something special lurking among the vineyards. After all, there must be some superb plots mated to clones that somehow were able to produce high-quality fruit, regardless of their profligacy. The trouble then was simply in finding those vines, knowing what to do with them, and being able to bring them to market. Easy, right?