It’s a warm and windy day in Puglia. I’ve exited the train station in Bari (the capital of Puglia) and am on my way to check into my room and get a quick walk around the port. My hat shields me from the ultra-strong rays of the sun and I pray for a respite from the heat. At streets will begin to empty as lunch begins. Only at 4:30 will they reawaken. The boats bob up and down nodding in the water. Not a soul is swimming. I move my eyes to the outdoor fishing market. Fishermen and women are calling out their wares and bartering with their customers. The smell is, well fishy. As I step away I realize much of the fish is being cleaned there. Makes sense. The smell. This is a sea-loving region. As the palm trees sway in the wind, I move my thoughts to the wine of the region. Salice Salentino.
On the precipice of global recognition is one of the most exciting regions of wine in Italy. Salice Salentino is in central Puglia between the provinces of Lecce & Brindisi. Each has a village with the same name. Puglia (aka Apulia) is in the center of the heel of the boot of Italy’s southern region. Water surrounds this part of the heel. From East, the Adriatic Sea. The Southeast, the Ionian Sea. And to the south, both the Strait of Otranto and the Gulf of Taranto. With 500 miles of coastline in Puglia, their stunning beaches are 25 minutes or less from wherever you may be in the heel.
A combination of coastal waters, forests, farmland, vineyards, and olive groves make up Puglia. And with over 86,000 hectares (212,510 acres) of vines, the whole of Puglia is awestriking. Its climate is a warm Mediterranean climate. Hot in the summer months (70-85F ) with mild wet winters (50-70F). A place where farm to table is not a fad, it’s an ancient tradition. Also sacred in tradition is lunch. Enough time for pasta or pizza a glass of Negroamaro and a nap. There are several captivating towns in central Puglia. The primary wine oriented villages are Lecce, Martina Franca and finally Salice Salentino.
The land here is the least mountainous in Italy. The terrain is flat, and hot in the summer for the most part. Some may wonder how such a warm region can sustain a thriving winemaking industry. The grapes grown here are well suited to the climate. They also taking advantage of the natural cooling effects of the surrounding waters. The sun can be unforgiving. The wind that surrounds the coastal areas makes up for it by cooling the land. This is why the grapes Salice Salentino thrive. The regional wind is as called Sirocco. It’s a brazen wind that blows in from the Sahara. At its worst, it can create hurricane strength speeds on its way to Southern Italy. This landscape is natural scrubland attune to the climate of the Mediterranean.
Some of the earliest settlers influencing wine in this region were the Greeks. Settling in coastal areas they recognized this as a strategic location. The Romans would soon follow suit.
This was the site of countless migrations and conquerors. From the Ottomans to the Turks, there was a perpetual wave of change.King Ferdinand V of Aragon was in charge in 1500. In 1734 the Spanish would reclaim control from the Austrians. The biggest modern-day change was World War II. The Salentinos adapted well to these changes. Unlike other areas of Italy, most of those who migrated away during World War II returned. Such was the love for their people and the land.
Within Puglia is one of the most important DOC’s in the region Salice Salentino DOC. Salice Salentino refers not only to a town in the Lecce province of Puglia but also their DOC. It’s in the area near Lecce and the oldest DOC in Puglia. The town of Salice Salentino is small with a population of 8,185. The town of Salice Salentino in the center of the boot of Puglia.
The DOC is an important addition in the enology world of Salento and was established in 1976. It ensures members maintain the high-quality requirements of the region. Word has gotten out that the Salice Salentino DOC is a leading of producer of high-quality wine.
The magic that is Salice Salentino is due in part to its integrity with its member’s high standards. The integrity created through their hard work has resulted in high-quality products. There is a focus on today’s contemporary global consumer. Their focus on driving quality in wine, food, and hospitality is being noted. Today they go beyond the basics and are driving a youthful tourism play as well. They are first in Puglia to gain expansive recognition outside of Southern Italy.
The soil here is primarily clay-limestone, but there is also alluvial soil, reddish Terre Rosse, and rocky organic-rich material. It’s the perfect storm for winegrowing and creating distinct nuances in the wine. The winds are enough that the pests are kept at bay. The clay retains moisture so the vines can thrive even in drought-like conditions.
The prominent grape that is also the most famous here, is Negroamaro also known as Negro Amaro.
While I’ve done extensive research on the topic there are factions out there that are at odds with the proper way to spell this from the scholars to the natives. Negro means black and Amaro means bitter. Negroamaro used to be blended because of the rustic and angular characteristics it brings. Rarely will you find the grape as a solo player. Its deep and intense character are the fundamental characteristics of the grape. Today smaller producers are using 100% Negroamaro and highlighting the unique features of the winemaking it into a remarkable single varietal. In the past, it was balanced by a blend of a sweet fragrant varietal known as Malvasia Nera. The blend can make a Rosso (red wine) and a Rosato (Rosé) wine of various depth and qualities. The vines are vigorous producers. The grapes are excellent at dealing with the heat while maintaining a high level of acidity. This acidity is what adds to the refreshing nature of the wine.
What you will find when Negroamaro is blended well is a delicious medium-bodied fresh wine with a compelling depth of flavor. Without blending the Negroamaro has tannins of elegance and a slight bitterness on the finish. But paired well, it is a remarkable single varietal.
Of significant importance is the DOC’s enforcement of standards. It is their standards that have helped ensure top quality wine. The Salice Salentino DOC has 3,862 acres of vineyards under its control. Out of that in 2016 they produced 959,000 cases of wine. The focus on this region is dry and beautifully articulated wines that express the land and fruit. Their primary white grape varieties are Chardonnay, Fiano, and Pinot Bianco. The primary red varietals are Aleatico and Negroamaro. Out of these, you will find Bianco, Chardonnay, Fiano, and Pinot Bianco blends. Prices on these delicious and intriguing wines run from $10.00 for the Bianco to $25.00 for the Negroamarao Riserva making the wine incredibly affordable.
Pairing these delightful wines is quite easy. In fact, the way they are made you will find a natural progression between the easy sipping light Bianco, to the refreshingly delightful and versatile Rosato to the robust and elegantly rich Rosso and Negroamaro wines. Bianco wines are great as an aperitif as are the Rosato. They also pair quite nicely with the staples of the region. A note to remember, the pasta in this area is not made with eggs. It is rustic with texture and perfect for heavy red sauces with pasta. Bread and pasta are the true staples of the region. You will find far more lamb, goat, and horsemeat in the region than beef.
Cheese is also a mainstay. Primarily sheep cheese, followed by cow cheese including a favorite of mine, Burrata di Andria. One can never have enough Burrata in Italy.
With your Bianco Salice Salentino wine, the region staple of fava bean puree and sautéed Cicoria (Chickory) is pure perfection. This is due to the fresh aromatics (think fresh tropical fruits, vanilla, and spice) and flavor, the Bianco delivers. Click here for the recipe.
Because of its nearby coasts and the delight of fresh fish in the area, it also pairs perfectly with seafood.
I embraced the beautiful hues of what we know in the U.S. as Rosé. The comparable of Salice Salentino is Rosato. The notes are soft and refreshing. With white flowers on the nose, red cherry, and raspberry on the palate. This particular bottle was a blend of 90% Negroamoro and 10% Malvasia. The versatility of Rosato is well known. From the aperitif to the slightly spicy yet light seafood pasta dish the Rosato is your hero. I tried pasta with a mildly spicy light olive oil sauce, blended with roasted cherry tomatoes and chard. Tossed it and the match was exquisite.
I’m no shrinking violet, but I really wanted to get this pairing right. I was initially a little hesitant to pair it with beef simply because beef is not a staple of the Salice Salentino region. The roasted leg of lamb with lamb crumb gremolata was perfect. Beautifully spiced, and slow-roasted to bring out all the flavors in the lamb. It is an enchanting way to enjoy this remarkable wine and compliment a delicious dish. The result was a wine that challenged the lamb both in spice and flavor but had elegant enough tannins to finish each bite with a flair. The wine itself has the aroma of violets and black fruit. The palate draws you in with blackberry, black cherry, cinnamon, and eucalyptus. Exquisite.
Finally, there are many sparkling wines as well in Salice Salentino. The types of sparkling are Bianco, Rosato, Negroamaro Rosato, Pinot Bianco, Fiano, and Chardonnay. Created with a second natural fermentation there is no use of carbon dioxide.
The wines were a big part of the attraction to the region for me. However, when you combine all of the aspects of the climate, terroir, the culture, and the people, it is difficult not to be drawn to this magnificent part of Puglia. From it’s charming towns to its quaint villages, the diversity of the land, and the wine and food, there are few places that are at this memorable juncture in time. Salice Salentino is on my mind, and I’ve only just begun to discover all the jewels it has to offer.
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