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Puglia (Apulia to many English speakers) is a long, thin wine region in the far south-eastern corner of the "boot" of Italy. To continue the footwear analogy often used to illustrate Italy’s shape, Puglia runs from the very point of the heel to just below mid-calf height, where the "spur" of the Gargano Peninsula juts out into the Adriatic Sea. The heel (the Salento Peninsula) occupies the southern half of the region, and is of great significance to Puglia's identity. Not only are there cultural and geographical differences when compared to northern Puglia, but the wines are also different. Where the north is slightly hillier and more connected to the customs and winemaking practices of central Italy, the south is almost entirely flat and retains a strong connection with its Greco-Roman past.

The one factor which unites northern and southern Puglia is the choice of crops grown: olives and grapes, in that order. The region is responsible for almost half of Italy's total olive-oil production and has a long-held reputation as a prolific source of (mostly red) wine. This has had serious economic consequences for Puglia's vinegrowers and for the reputation of the region's wines; as the world began to demand higher-quality wines, the mass-produced blending wines in which Puglia specialised lost their value. Where once it was enough to generate vast lakes of cheap, high-alcohol wine for blending or making vermouth, late 20th century consumers demanded quality over quantity – especially once they were able to access affordable quality wines from countries such as Australia, Argentina and Chile.

The Puglian solution was to reduce the woefully loose yield restrictions imposed under its DOC regulations, and to change its approach to winemaking. Many wine companies here now enlist the services of flying winemakers from the New World to bring a new focus to their products. Fifteen years ago only a tiny percentage of Puglian wine was of DOC quality; that figure is now climbing steadily and new DOCs are being introduced. In 2010 the region even gained its first DOCG in Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale, followed a year later by a trio of red wines lifted up out of the Castel del Monte DOC.

Puglia lends itself to division into three rough viticultural areas, which correspond neatly to its administrative provinces: Foggia in the north, Bari and Taranto in the middle and Brindisi and Lecce in the south.

The "true" Puglia is to be found in the south, below the Brindisi-Taranto line, which traces the southernmost stretch of the Appian Way. Here the wines are made from grape varieties almost unique to the area, while in the north the prevalent grapes are those used all over central and northern Italy (such as Sangiovese and Montepulciano). The most obviously full-blooded Puglian grapes are Negroamaro and Primitivo, while Verdeca is the only salient example among the whites in this hot, red-dominated region. Primitivo is at home in Manduria and Gioia del Colle, and creates robust, powerful wines known locally as mirr test (hard wine). Negroamaro is more widespread and defines the red wines of the majority of southern Puglia's DOCs: Alezio, Matino, Galatina, Copertino, Nardo, Leverano, Lizzano, Salice Salentino, Squinzano and Brindisi. The coastal town of Ostuni marks the northern boundary of this most Puglian of zones, with its whites based on Impigno (a crossing of Bombino Bianco and Quagliano) and rosés made from Ottavianello (Cinsault).

In the middle of Puglia is a cluster of DOCs around Barletta, Cerignola, and Castel del Monte, where Uva di Troia reigns supreme. This low-yielding red variety is named after the nearby town of that name (not connected with the Troy of Homeric legend) and is only now being recognised for its potential to make quality wines. Sweet Muscat-based Moscato di Trani and Gravina (made from Greco Bianco) provide respite from the sea of red wines here, their DOC catchment areas flanking those listed above.

In terms of terroir, Puglia has a formidable array of natural tools to help encourage prolific vine growth. The hot Mediterranean climate, persistent sunshine and occasional sea breezes make for a near perfect environment for viticulture. The region’s geology shows a bias towards cretaceous limestone under layers of iron-rich quaternary deposits, most visible in the soils around the Colline Joniche Tarantine hills and near Martina Franca and Locorotondo in the Itria Valley.

Now the area has begun to shake off its reputation for flat, highly alcoholic blending wines, Puglia has an opportunity to seduce the wine world with concentrated, inky reds to rival the best from Australia and South America. The reception of Primitivo in California, the home of its doppelganger Zinfandel, will be of particular interest.