I’ve been on a bit of a tear since returning from the Radici Wine experience in Puglia in November. I had so many wines while there that, in truth, it was a bit of a blur until I had the perspective that only time allows. I’ve been reporting on the wines -- the good, the bad, the new and the unreleased it seems -- but I’ve also been telling a story of sorts.
I happen to be telling the story of Puglian wine, but in truth one can pull out "Puglian" and insert myriad other locales that have gone down this very same path. We like to think that our own conditions, whether personal or professional, are unique and distinctive, though the truth is that they are unique only to ourselves. We all tend to repeat the mistakes of others and, if we’re lucky, also their success. Primitivo, among all of Puglia’s wines, truly can say that it's been there before, in the guise of California’s Zinfandel, though!
We’ve been focusing on Californian Zinfandel these past two weeks, and I’ve tasted about 100 during that time. I’m pretty comfortable in saying that even though Zinfandel and Primitivo are clones, they are not identical. The wines enjoy such differing terroir, not to mention rootstock and viticultural practice, that there are distinct and generalizable differences between the two. What are they, you ask? Well, it’s easier just to say that there are and leave it at that, but here goes.
In general, I would say that Primitivo is a bit lower in alcohol, with a darker, earthier core of fruit. Zinfandel, because of what I believe is a heavier reliance on new oak in California, tends to be more marked by sweet, toasty notes and the spicy accents new oak imparts. In general, it seems that Primitivo is a lighter, fresher wine than Zinfandel, though as with all generalizations there are many exceptions to any rule one might want to try and impose on a set of wines! Let’s let the wines do the talking, shall we?
Wines from Puglia
The Puglian Job Part II
So, is Puglia fated to remain a source of inexpensive and bulk wines? The answer is clearly “no.” There are some exciting, compelling wines emerging from Puglia these days. They are the wines that are destined to secure Puglia’s reputation as a source for fine wine and they are coming from a variety of producers. Some from larger producers, who have figured out how to make attractive wines that do such a great job mimicking other expensive wines that they appeal to people as alternatives to those more expensive wines. Other producers, even larger ones, have been able to produce some great wines that are packed with that character, that sense of place that makes wines so compelling. But the few to produce truly compelling wines seem to always be those smaller producers, sometime regarded with lunatic suspicions by their neighbors, who really do make the wine in the vineyards. Well, not literally, but you get the idea.
So, how did all this come about then and does this really explain why I’m tasting wines that no-one has heard about and that might not even be in the marketplace? Well, yes it does. The transition from bulk wine producer to fine-wine wannabe is fast and painless, but making the transition to true fine wine producers takes a blend of resources and time. The fewer the resources, the longer the time.
So many of these producers were decidedly resource-poor, and the idea after all was to remedy that situation. That left them time-rich, and it takes time to accomplish what they set out to do, which was simply to make the best wine with what they had available to them. Some got lucky and had great old vines in the right spots, others had to buy plots, but they all went down similar paths.
Those paths included a painful lowering of yields, painful because a bulk business depends on volume, and painful because the bulk business turns over wine quickly -- and these wines were destined for longer ageing in cellars, and a tough time to market. Fortunately, larger brands had already been investing the time and the effort to create that market, and in all honesty, the time was needed to make the market ripe for cracking.
I mentioned earlier my thoughts on the first to market wines, the wines made more in the cellar than the vineyards (OK, maybe not more but equally). I also mentioned how I have repeatedly seen these types of wines wow people on release, only to collapse under the weight of their wine making after a few short years. These two aspects of these wines -- their international anonymous style and lack of development -- can have a profound effect on how a market is perceived by the wine-consuming public, and in particular the early adopters and -- for lack of a more appropriate term -- hipster drinkers.
You see in almost no time at all, with a combination of free and paid media, a region can create the impression that it produces fine wine. Perception is reality and confidence can be very convincing. Some people will swallow this idea hook, line, and sinker, but others will question it. Some questions are so obvious: If Puglian vineyards can make such great wines, why are there international varieties being added to these wines? Or, if Puglian wine is so great, why are they trying to turn them into Bordeaux or California wines in the cellar? Other questions are more obscure, but are being asked with increasing frequency. Questions like: How would this wine taste if the vineyard was farmed organically or is it possible to lower yields too much with these grape varieties?
These are the questions that are being answered today. Not necessarily by me but rather by a large number of wine writers, drinkers, sommeliers and other early adopters who are curious enough to ask and aware enough to seek the answers. And these will be the people who move Puglian wine forward. These are the wine buyers tasting through days of less-than-engaging wines to find the few superstars, the guys in the small shops taking a risk on unknown producers simply because they love the wines, and your favorite wine geeks who share their favorite discoveries with you, me and anyone who will listen.
The truth is that the fine wine market is bursting at the seams -- flooded with wine -- and it couldn’t happen at a worse time. A lot of that wine is awfully similar, in fact frequently indistinguishable from one another. That doesn’t make it bad wine. The first examples of those wines were great wines and they spoke of a time and a place, which made them such a success that the whole world has been chasing them ever since.
These are not necessarily bad wines; they are abundant wines with incredible financial pressures on them. If you’re going to make a rich, dark, fruity wine, well marked with the aromas and flavors of oak, it’s easy to do. All you need is some warm land, abundant sufficient water and some sort of wood flavoring -- chips, powders, barrel staves, they’re all fine. If your land and labor are cheap, you’ll end up with category-killer wines. If not, you’ll end up in the middle of a category that is notoriously hard on its middle.
It’s that middle that presents the opportunity for the next generation of Puglian producers. People shopping at the bottom are shopping on price. Whether it’s this modern style or some other style, their allegiance is to the dollar more than anything else. People shopping at the upper end have multiple motivations, be they status, point-chasing, or seeking out the perceived best in class. The people left in the middle have different motivations. At the lower end, they might be looking for a better or a more distinctive wine and they are willing to pay more for it. At the top end of this range, most people are lamenting the prices of the finest wines and are looking for cheaper alternatives, though many are simply looking for the best of the non-mainstream wines -- a rich mother lode for the wine geek. And yes, there are many people sprinkled through even this group, who end up buying modern, international, anonymous wines for a multitude of reasons -- but they aren’t going to help move this story along, so let’s ignore them for now.
And that brings us to today. The ground has been prepared and is ripe for the emergence of Puglia’s future superstars right at the moment when a section, albeit narrow, of wine lovers are looking to prove or disprove the theory that Puglia is in fact capable of producing fine wines. It’s now up to the producer to make good on their promise.
And just a few words about the producer. We’ve already had the group who came to us and told us that Puglia made good wines and could make great wines if they only added a bit of Cabernet or Merlot, used more new oak, maybe a little micro-ox to soften these hard tannins and spinning cones to sap some of the alcohol out. No, thank you. You are not the future of Puglian wine.
What we need now are the producers who find the great vines, reduce the yields, but not too much, and somehow transmit all that Puglia has to say into their wine. And what does Puglia have to say? Well, I can’t say for sure but my short story would go something like this:
“Hi, I’m Puglian wine. For a long time I was cheap, not so good, but occasionally not so bad, and in fact good enough to be used to improve many of the famous wines you’re used to drinking. I’ve got a few terroirs I’d like to introduce you to. They’re the old vines of my family. I cleaned up the vines and cellars a bit and am trying to make wines that let these lands and grapes tell you their story, their history, and their future. I know, the wines are not for everyone, but they are unique, unlike anything else in the world. OK, yeah, Primitivo is awfully like Zinfandel but even then it’s a different Zinfandel.”
And there was much rejoicing.
Now, this was all part anecdote with a dash of fact and a dollop of experience, but it’s close to the truth and hopefully the results will be close to what I have portrayed. I know the wines are out there. I have tasted them. It’s now time for the brave importers, distributors and retailers to step in and take this story to the next level.
Find 33 Primitivo reviews on the following pages