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Negroamaro: Black & Bitter from Italy's Heel
By Michael Apstein
Jul 24, 2012
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“Black and bitter.”  It certainly wasn’t a name create by a public relations firm.  To be fair, Luigi Rubino, President of the Puglia Best Wine Consortium points out the name really means “black and black” from both the Latin (negro) and Greek (amaro) for black.  Whatever the etymology, consumers should embrace Negroamaro, a wine from Puglia, the sunny heel of the Italian “boot,” because it fills a void.  It’s a robust red that’s not tannic or astringent even when young, and has an appealing bitter black cherry finish.  This makes it a complete contrast to the many over-ripe New World wines that finish sweet, and a great choice for the remainder of the “grilling season” or to pair with hearty wintery fare.

From Quantity to Quality

“Traditionally, it’s been sold as bulk wine and shipped north to enrich thinner wines,” according to Rubino, who is owner of the eponymous Brindisi-based estate, Tenute Rubino, in addition to his role with Puglia Best Wine Consortium.

But less so now.  Now producers are using this unique and ancient grape planted by the Romans to make first-rate wine, rather than just jug wine or stuffing for wines from other regions.

“The grape’s the same, but the point of view has changed,” noted Rubino.  “We now aim for quality instead of quantity.”

Spectrum of Style

As with most traditional wines areas whose grapes and wines are being “rediscovered,” there is an enormous spectrum of wine styles with Negroamaro.   There are producers who seem to have an initial streak of insecurity about indigenous grapes, a feeling that they can’t possibly make an “important” or grand wine from them.   In such cases, Cabernet Sauvignon often goes into the blend because everyone knows that Cabernet is an “important” grape.  And then, out come the French barriques because everyone knows that the patina of vanilla-infused oak is a sign of a “grand” wine.  Although some of those blends work, more often the result is a homogenized wine in a placeless, indistinct style rather than a unique and distinctive wine. 

The good news is that most producers know distinctive wines when they taste them and are willing to adjust.  It happened in Priorat, for example, and it’s happening in Puglia.  Castello Monaci, a leading Pugliese estate, started with 1,000 barriques in 2001, according to Luigi Seracca, whose family owns the estate (along with Gruppi Vini Italia).  Now they’re down to 500.  Barrique aging makes a wine more approachable or “easier,” according to Seracca, but it also “covers the sense of Negroamaro.” 

Edoardo Alberto Falvo, President and owner of Li Veli, another excellent producer and former owner of Tuscany’s Avignonesi, planted just under 4 acres of Cabernet as an experiment initially about 10 years ago.  He must have figured that since Cabernet worked in Tuscany, it might work in Puglia.  Although he’s happy with the results (and their flagship wine, which just carries the name of the estate, Masseria Li Veli, demonstrates the blend can work well) he’s not including any more Cabernet in his soon-to-planted 25 acres.  Instead, more Susumaniello and other indigenous varieties are going in. 

Changes in Vineyard and the Winery

Once producers started to see the potential of Negroamaro as a quality wine, changes in the vineyards and wineries followed.  “Everything’s different now compared to twenty years ago,” according to Seracca.  In the past, there were two stellar wines made from Negroamaro, Cosimo Taurino’s Il Patriglione and Agricole Vallone’s Graticciaia, according to Seracca.  “Now there are lots of great wines from Negroamaro because producers have changed what they do in the vineyard and the winery.” 

“Precise viticulture” is how Seracca describes changes in the vineyard.  Growers have converted hundreds acres of Negroamaro previously planted in the tendone method--a pergola-like system that promoted large yields--to a cordon system (vines trained on wires), which facilitates high quality grapes.  Falvo has planted Negroamaro bush vines at Li Veli in a settonce array that he used in Tuscany. 

Duccio Armenio, from Slow Food and an expert on Negroamaro, says that the breezes from the Adriatic and Ionian seas are especially beneficial to Negroamaro, which grows spargolo, or in loose bunches, making it an ideal candidate for organic viticulture since the wind keeps the grapes practically disease-free.  Typically, it ripens by mid-September while the weather is still warm and sunny. 

In the winery, temperature control, essential in this hot part of the world, as well as stainless steel vats, have allowed producers to capture freshness in the wines.

Armenio describes the wines made from Negroamaro as “harmonious and complete” because the color, alcohol, polyphenols and acidity always comes together.  “Its polyphenolic content is comparable to Barolo,” according to Armenio.  “But despite the high polyphenols, it’s a versatile grape that can make early drinking or ageable reds, a rosato, as well as an Amarone-like wine.” 

Blending for Quality

Many producers still blend Negroamaro, but now with other indigenous varieties (such as the rediscovered Susumaniello) to make a more complex wine, not to bolster anemic ones.  Traditionally, Susumaniello was part of a field blend with Negroamaro to add color (as if Negroamaro needed more coloring).  In the past, Susumaniello’s natural tendency to deliver low alcohol and high acidity even when fully ripe was not considered a positive attribute.  But it’s exactly those qualities that make it a good fit with Negroamaro.  Giovanni Dimitri, the General Manager at Li Veli, insists that Susumaniello adds much more than color.  Reminiscent of Chile’s signature grape, Carménère, Dimitri continues, “You need to let it get to full ripeness,” which is late, often in October.  There are only about 100 acres of Susumaniello currently planted, but producers are enthusiastic about its potential and are planting more.

Distinctive Rosato

The quality of the rosato made from Negroamaro belies its humble origins as a wine to accompany the local food.  The warm sunny climate, ever-present proximity to the sea, and poverty (as in, little meat) mean that vegetables and seafood, fare not ideally suited to big red wines, are mainstays of the Pugliese diet.  Traditionally, Puglia made very little white wine. Hence, a rosé--more like a light, chill-able red--was born to match to food.  Unlike many rosés, which can be insipid, the rosatos from Negroamaro have character, structure and lively acidity.

Recommended Negroamaro Wines

Masseria Li Veli, Pezzo Morgana, Salice Salentino, DOC Riserva, 2009 ($20, Dalla Terra Winery Direct):  100% Negroamaro, 14% alcohol.  Pure and clean.  Delectable black cherry bitterness.  Slightly tarry, firm tannins, long suave finish.  Lots of complexity here.  Needs time, but terrific young wine.  Very polished.  You feel the oak instead of tasting it.  A refined wine, reflecting Falvo’s refined Tuscan heritage.  92

Candido, Cappello di Prete, IGT Salento, 2007 (no US importer, but their wines are so good I suspect they will have one soon):  100% Negroamaro, 13.5% alcohol.  Clean and polished.  Smokey.  Lovely bitter black cherries.   Dark fruit and earth.  Polished tannins.  Great balance and harmony.  91

Castello Monaci, Aiace, DOC Salice Salentino, 2008 ($20, Frederick Wildman): Negroamaro (80%) and Malvasia Nera, 14.0% alcohol.  Great nose.  Classy, bitter black cherry in the finish.  Good use of oak lends suaveness without being overt.  Nicely polished wine.  Structured and long. 91

Tenute Rubino, Marmorelle Rosso, IGT Salento, 2010 ($13, Panebianco Wines):  100% Negroamaro, 13.5% alcohol.  A big and juicy wine, yet it’s not over done.  Remarkable elegance especially considering its size.  Very fresh and lively.  Subtle streak of black cherry bitterness.  Great value.  90

Vallone, Vigna Flaminio Reserva, DOP Brindisi, 2007 ($16, Banville and Jones): Negroamaro (80%) and Montepulciano, 13% alcohol.  Regulations require an extra year of aging to be labeled Reserva.  Practically speaking, the winemaker uses better grapes than can withstand and gain from more time in barrel.  Glorious combination of bitter black cherry fruit notes, savory mature flavors and an almost chewy texture.  Serious stuff and again, more elegance than expected for a wine this size.  90

Torrevento, Sine Nomine Riserva, Salice Salentino DOC, 2006 ($20, Torrevento USA) Negroamaro (90%) and Malvasia Nera, 13.5% alcohol. Slightly rustic, still with lovely subtle bitter cherry note.  Long and distinctive.  Amazing how just a hint of rusticity is very captivating. 90