Apulia produces 17% of Italy's wine, enough to make it the world's sixth-largest winemaking region. Yet until recently, much of Apulia's red wine was used to bulk up wines from Tuscany, Piedmont, and even France during a poor harvest. Whites were sent to Turin to be distilled into vermouth. Today, Apulian estates are distinguishing themselves, profiting from unique varietals, old vines, cheap land, and an influx of winemakers. In August, Robert Parker's influential The Wine Advocate scored nine Apulian wines at 91 points or higher, an "exceptional" rating.
Apulia's new guard includes Vahé Keushguerian, president of La Corte winery. A former restaurateur in Berkeley, Calif., Keushguerian moved to Tuscany in 1996 and began making wine. Two years later he purchased 55 acres in Apulia planted with the local varietals negro amaro and primitivo. Now, La Corte's $30 top blend, Re, has won international acclaim. "It's the best wine I have ever tasted from this part of Apulia," says Wine Advocate's Daniel Thomases.
Northern Italian winemakers, who once turned down their noses at their southern brethren, have made the biggest investments. Avignonesi of Siena and Gruppo Italiano Vini of Verona have both snatched up 100-acre to 200-acre properties. Tuscan wine dynasty Antinori, which bought nearly 1,500 acres, markets four reds from that estate under the brand Tormaresca. It's producing 1.2 million bottles a year and aims to double that by 2007.
The outsiders have brought modern production techniques, hygiene, and refrigeration to Apulia, not to mention marketing and distribution knowhow. "People thought negro amaro had a cooked flavor and a barnyardy aroma," says Gianluca dell'Antoglietta, Tormaresca's marketing director. "In fact, it was just poor winemaking." Tormaresca's best -- the 2001 Bocca di Lupo, made from the local aglianico grape, and the 2001 Masseria Maime negro amaro -- retail for about $25.
Apulia's real strength is in everyday wines, says Severino Garafano, a wine consultant who makes wine at his estate, I Monaci. Its 2001 Censi, a blend of negro amaro and primitivo, has a Wine Advocate rating of 88 and retails for just $11.
Apulia has made great strides in the past five years, says Sergio Esposito, owner of New York-based Italian Wine Merchants. Although he steers clients toward northern Italian wines for special occasions, he believes Apulia has "more potential to make great wines than unknown producers in northern Italy or Bordeaux." That is nothing to sniff at.
By Jane Black