We've spent a lot of time in northern Italy on this blog, exploring the obscure wonders of Piemonte, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy. We've even spent a little time in central Italy exploring some of the wines of Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria and the Marche. I would guess that close to half of the posts I've written for this site were about Italian grapes and wines, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me that Fiano from Campania is pretty much the only southern Italian wine that I've written about. It's certainly not because there's a lack of interesting grapes in southern Italy, but rather that I just haven't gotten around to pulling the corks on the ones that I have at home. Hopefully that trend will start to change today, though, as the grape we're concerned with is Negroamaro from Puglia.
It is thought that Negroamaro was brought to southern Italy by the Greeks sometime between the 8th and 7th Centuries BC (possibly by way of Albania according to Nicolas Belfrage). How the grape got its name is a matter of some dispute. Most books on the subject will tell you that the name comes from the Italian words for black (negro) and bitter (amaro). Seems pretty open and shut, right? Well, others claim that the "amaro" portion of the grape's name is actually a corruption of the Greek word for black, "mavro," while the "negro" portion is a corruption from the Latin "niger," so the grape's name would literally be translated as "black-black" in Latin and Greek. I have to admit, this seemed like a much less likely explanation to me until I read Jeremy Parzen's take on the matter over at Do Bianchi. The theory that he posits is that the grape was named redundantly in two different languages because the region of Puglia was a crossroads between Latin and Greek cultures so the name of the grape served as a kind of advertisement in two languages for what the drinker could expect from the wine. It does make a kind of sense when viewed that way, but not being a historical linguist, I don't feel qualified to weigh in on the matter. Suffice it to say that the matter is in some dispute and you can choose for yourself whether you want to call it "black-bitter," "black-black" or just plain old Negroamaro.
Negroamaro is grown almost exclusively in Puglia and, most notably, in the Salento peninsula in southern Puglia. The vine is a favorite with growers because it's resistant to a wide variety of diseases, is drought resistant and is capable of very high yields. It's fairly widely grown throughout Puglia (different sources quote the percentage of Negroamaro in the region from as low as 25% to as high as 80%), but not as widely grown as it used to be. Puglia was a major contributor to the European Wine Lake in the late 1980's so in an effort to reduce the amount of excess wine being produced, the EU offered financial incentives for growers to pull up their vines. These vine pull schemes cut the acreage devoted to Negroamaro in Puglia nearly in half from over 31,000 hectares in 1990 to about 16,000 in the year 2000. Even with all the vine pulls, bulk wine is still where most of the action is in Puglia as only about 2% of Puglian production is DOC wine and only about 25% of the wine produced in Puglia is ever sold in bottle.
I was able to get my hands on two different bottlings of Negroamaro. The first was a 2007 Sant'Angelo Negroamaro that I picked up for around $11. This is an IGT bottling from the Salento region. In the glass, the wine had a dense ruby colored core that faded to a light purple rim. It had a moderately open nose of dusky blackcurrant and black cherry fruit with a hint of strawberry. On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid and medium tannins (that were nicely integrated). There were flavors of tart cherry and chocolate with a bit of earthy espresso to it. The fruit here is very ripe and juicy and though the wine is dry, it almost tastes sweet. It had a kind of chocolate covered strawberry taste to it that was nice at first but got a little cloying as the night wore on. It was an OK wine but it's not something I'm likely to revisit.
The second wine that I tried was a 2007 Taurino Salice Salentino Rosso Riserva that I picked up for about $10.50. I'm not sure of the proportions, but this wine had a little Malvasia Nera in it (DOC regulations stipulate that this had to be at least 85% Negroamaro). In the glass, the wine had a deep, opaque ruby core. The nose was open with chocolate, black cherries, dried cherries, black plum and leather aromas. On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with fairly high acid and soft, silky tannins. It tasted like chocolate covered dried cherries with a bit of leather and tobacco mixed in it. This wine was much more balanced than the Sant'Angelo bottling and had a nice complexity to it for the price. It had a nice polish to it, but it was still pretty rustic at heart.
A final note of caution here. Quality for Negroamaro based wines is extraordinarily and notoriously variable. DOC is never a guide to quality in Italy but it especially isn't here as there are many DOC labeled wines that are thin, sweet bottles that will leave you unhappy. The best way to shop for Negroamaro based wines is to go to a store you trust and let someone lead you to a bottle. I can unreservedly recommend the entire line of Taurino bottlings but beyond that, it's going to be trial and error. Luckily, most Negroamaro based wines are fairly inexpensive so your mistakes won't be too costly. It's definitely worth seeking them out, though, as when they are good, they are very good and represent incredible value for the money. They are great food wines as well, complementing grilled foods, red meat and tomato sauced dishes with equal aplomb.