On a recent trip to Puglia, Italy, I was fortunate to taste through the wines of tens of producers. There was the usual range of styles -- modern to traditional, blockbuster to table wine -- as well as a full range of varieties.
I was familiar with some of the wines and most of the grape varieties but only one really surprised me. First, a little bit of background is probably in order.
Puglia, the heel of Italy, has long been a source of bulk wines; wines destined for local consumption, jug wines, or wines known as vino da taglio (“wines to cut”), which ironically were used to improve many more famous, more expensive wines from northern Italy. As the Italian wine industry has come under stricter control, this sort of blending has been greatly diminished, and officially doesn’t occur at all. So, what is Puglia to do?
With an annual wine production that vies for first place each year with the regions of Sicily and the Veneto it is painfully obvious that Puglia must do something. Internationally regions such as Chile and Australia have stolen market share from Puglia as they have produced modern, clean wines at budget prices, the traditional market segment for most Puglian wines.
This has left Puglia with two options, though they seem to be gravitating to only one. The producers of Puglia can either move up-market, or produce wines that can compete with the best value wines in the world. Sadly from what I have seen, the tendency seems to be to try the first option, though it became painfully obvious during my tastings that they are better equipped to pursue the second!
But first I should temper my comments a bit. The truth of the matter is that by going up-market most of these producers seem to have gone down the route that has rewarded many other producers and regions with fame, money, and success; chiefly reducing yields and increasing the new oak their wines see. To what result one might ask? In my view, the results are plain to see: a loss of identity among many of the wines and a distinct shift in the character of the wines towards a rather anonymous, international style.
Yes, it can be argued that this path has proven to be successful, but I would argue that the marketplace is full of wines of this type today and we are at a turning point in this road. People are no longer gravitating toward the bigger is better mocha-choco-blueberry shake-style of wines. This is not to say that no-one is doing modern high-end Puglian wines well. Quite the contrary. A few of the producers I tried shocked me with the quality of their wines, but it was for a simple reason: they captured the essence of their most valuable asset.