Everyone (and their mom!) has heard of Barolo, Brunello, and Prosecco, but what about other, lesser-known Italian wines? There are over a thousand different grape varieties grown within the 20 winemaking regions of Italy. From the rolling hills of Piedmont in the north to the volcanic soils of Sicily in the south, you are guaranteed to find many fascinating places with delightful wines. Puglia is one of these unique areas, and, within it, the winemaking denomination of Salice Salentino (pronounced SAHL-ee-chay sahl-ayn-TEE-noh) is well worth exploring.
To find Salice Salentino, you’ll need to slather on sunscreen, don a wide-brimmed hat, and head to the southernmost part of Puglia, the “heel” of Italy’s “boot,” where the sun-soaked, sea-swept Salento Peninsula will lure you in with its many charms. But first, let’s get acquainted with Puglia (also called Apulia), a land with a multicultural heritage and a unique terroir that makes it conducive to growing wine grapes. Due to its appealing climate, fertile plains, and accessible seaside harbors, Puglia has had a long and tangled history of rule by many peoples: Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and others who came and conquered — and made wine!
In Puglia, symbols of a bygone nobility will greet you at every turn: ornate churches, magnificent castles, a Roman amphitheater, and imposing patrol towers built to protect the region from enemies. Yet within this majestic setting lives a more simple, modern-day Puglia. You’ll discover a land of quaint villages, enchanting beaches, picturesque grottos and, above all, lush farmland; a quiet place unspoiled by time. Charming, centuries-old masserie (stone farmhouses) dot the landscape; many of them converted to lodgings that range from rustic to elegant in style. Strolling the lovely towns, you’ll likely see families eating meals with their windows and doors wide open, the air filled with the enticing fragrance of Mediterranean cuisine: onions, garlic, and tomatoes simmering in olive oil; the smell of freshly cut lemons, fish frying, and meat roasting. Visitors return to Puglia year after year to relax and unwind, to bask in the bright sun and soak up the flavors of its fresh cuisine and superb, hand-crafted wines.
PUGLIA, AN AGRICULTURAL REGION
Described as the “heel” of the “boot” for its geographical position, the word is also a metaphor for Puglia’s role as a sturdy, supportive base providing all of Italy with a bounty of agricultural products. This is no delicate stiletto heel! Thanks to its relative flatness, Puglia has always been a robust agricultural region. Known as the “breadbasket of Italy”, Puglia produces the majority of the country’s durum wheat, used to make breads and pastas, like the famous orecchiette (literally meaning “small ears”). Also known as the “garden of Italy,” a wide variety of fresh produce has always thrived in Puglia: artichokes, chickpeas, broccoli rabe, and fennel, to name a few. But the two main crops within this rich farmland are olives and grapes.
Puglia’s land is richly carpeted with more than 60 million olive trees (some of them over a thousand years old!) and almost half of Italy’s entire olive oil production comes from the region. Like olives, grapes are one of Puglia’s most prolific crops. More wine is produced here than in any other Italian region, with 17% of the country’s total production coming from the area. There are thousands of vineyards, most of them planted with indigenous grapes (there are at least 13 varieties), like primitivo and negroamaro, that have been cultivated in Puglia for centuries. The splendid extra virgin olive oil and the superb wines of Puglia are not only the result of a favorable climate, but also the reward of hard-working people who take care of the land they love.
WINEMAKING IN PUGLIA
It is believed that the Greeks, who dominated rule here beginning in the 8th century B.C. (2800 years ago!), were the first to plant grapevines in Puglia. Over the years, the area’s suitability for abundant wine production has been both a blessing and a curse. During the advent of the Industrial Age in the late 19th century, production shifted towards mass-produced red wine that could be used to boost the body and alcohol content of finer, bottled wines from more northerly parts of Italy and France. Puglia’s wineries developed a reputation for favoring quantity over quality. By the 1980s, as the wine consuming market began to demand better wines, Puglian wines lost their value. Suffering great economic consequences, it was only a matter of time before the wineries began to change their approach and reduce yields.
According to Luigi Serraca Guerrieri, an owner of Castello Monaci in Salento, a big part of the change towards making quality wines came with the arrival, in the 1990s, of large wine firms like Gruppo Italiano Vino, Antinori, Pasqua, and Zonin. “They invested in the future of the area through the modernization of the wine cellars and the introduction of better viticultural practices,” says Luigi, “like teaching local winemakers the use of cold winemaking, essential to making wines of elegance in a warm climate.”
While Puglia is still not as well-known in the wine world as other Italian regions, its quality continues to improve. Wine drinkers have discovered at least two of its best-known grapes: primitivo, found throughout the whole region, and negroamaro, the best of which is grown in Salice Salentino.
SALENTO AND SALICE SALENTINO WINE
Let’s now return to the charming Salento Peninsula in the extreme south of Puglia, where we’ll find the Salice Salentino DOC (an official Italian wine classification meaning Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin). Created in 1976, the DOC consists of designated areas within the provinces of Lecce and Brindisi, including the town of Salice Salentino. In the beginning, the DOC included only red wines, but the rules were modified in 1990 and again in 2010 to permit white and rosé (“rosato” in Italian) wines.
The Salento Peninsula is a long, beautiful strip of flat land bathed by two seas: the Adriatic on its eastern shores and the Ionian to the southeast. The long, hot summers are filled with day after day of intense sunlight and the heat is tempered only by cool breezes coming off the sea. The winters here are short, mild, and rainy. Vineyards thrive in the diverse soils, mostly calcareous, with clay and limestone, that are able to retain groundwater reserves — imperative during the hot, dry summers and lessening the need for irrigation. Also of note is that most of the wineries in Salento favor the use of the traditional alberello vine planting method, an ancient system that helps produce excellent fruit. The vines grow low-to-the-ground in the shape of a bush, allowing the plant to withstand strong winds and to shade itself while absorbing the soil’s rich nutrients.
Heat in the vineyard can be a good thing, ensuring ripening of the grapes, but too much of it can be problematic. “The management of the great heat is our biggest challenge,” says Luigi. “We must be very careful not to burn the grapes. As we are very close to the sea, the water is very salty and it’s important to manage irrigation correctly. Using a lot of water in the vineyard can compromise the quality of the wines. The challenge is not letting the plants die from dehydration but not to ruin the wines with the salinity of water either.”
Most of Salice Salentino is red, and made from thick-skinned, dark purple negroamaro grapes. The wines, however, are an exquisite deep ruby red color with violet undertones. Powerful, lush, and fruit forward, yet dry, these beauties deliver subtle notes of spice and tobacco leaf with soft, round tannins. DOC regulations allow for 20% of the more delicate malvasia nera to be blended with negroamaro to soften the wine and add enticing aromatics. The area surrounding Brindisi and Lecce in the southern part of Puglia has long been known as a suitable area to grow these two varieties. When grown and vinified with care, the reds of Salice Salentino make beautiful, well-balanced wines, full of cherry fruit flavors and grounded by a lively acidity — so enjoyable to drink!
While red wine is what Salice Salentino is most famous for, there is a long-held tradition in Salento of drinking rosé, an excellent accompaniment to the fresh Adriatic seafood. Like the reds, the rosés are made from negroamaro, with 25% malvasia nera allowed, and they tend to be full-bodied and deep pink in color. A smaller amount of white wine is produced, mostly from Chardonnay, but also from Fiano and Pinot Bianco. Additionally, sparkling wine and sweet wines are made, but in very small quantities. To explore further the precise regulations for wines labeled Salice Salentino, click here.
As for foods that pair well with the wines of Salice Salentino, the classic pairing is the olive-oil based Mediterranean cuisine. For whites and rosés, think antipasti (swordfish carpaccio, marinated octopus, fresh burrata, ricotta wrapped in prosciutto, grilled bell peppers and sautéed mushrooms). For the reds, match with savory soups and stews, grilled vegetables, spicy roasted and grilled meats, tomato-based red meat ragout, and aged cheeses. And don’t forget these red wines the next time you grill outdoors. They go particularly well with any type of barbecued food: burgers, hot dogs, ribs, and spice-rubbed chicken, beef, or lamb.
Now it’s time to raise your glass and say, “Salute to Salice Salentino!”
WINERIES TO VISIT
What could be better than a vacation in Puglia discovering its ancient buildings, beautiful seaside landscapes, magnificent olive trees, and some of Italy’s best food and wine? It’s no wonder that The New York Times named Puglia #18 in the “52 Places To Go In 2019.”
There are many wonderful wineries to explore on your trip to Salice Salentino. The following is a small sampling of wineries that welcome visitors for tours and tastings. I suggest contacting them ahead of time to schedule an appointment.
Cantele. Founded in 1979, this family-owned winery has invested heavily in the latest winemaking technology. Visit the estate to taste its delicious wines, followed by lunch made from local produce — fresh garden vegetables, cheeses, and pasta. On the property is “iSensi,” a culinary destination unto itself with a test kitchen and tasting room where guests can explore the magic of Salento's cuisine. iSensi can be booked for classes, cooking demonstrations, wine and olive oil tastings, and local food product tastings.
Castello Monaci. A “not-to-be-missed” estate making wines of excellence and great value. On the property, nestled amongst magnificent olive groves, vineyards, and gorgeous gardens, is a spectacular white stone castle, built in the 15th century, and once home to noble families. Visitors can learn about the history of Salento winemaking at the Merum Museum, located on the estate, and partake in wine tastings, wine pairing dinners and visits of the vineyards. The castle and gardens are now used as the perfect setting for weddings, and accommodations are available at the elegant Le Scuderie, a restored farmhouse built in the 1500s with a private spa and a restaurant serving the local cuisine.
Vigneti Reale. One of the oldest and most respected wine producers in Puglia, the winery is committed to the highest standards of quality and produces a range of fine wines. The flagship product is “Santa Croce,” a Riserva Salice Salentino. Stay at the 4-star Vivosa Apulia Resort and enjoy a vast selection of whites, reds, and rosés delivered directly from the Vigneti Reale vineyards. Sounds like my kind of vacation!
Masseria Li Veli. The winery was selected by The Wine Spectator as one of the 100 finest Italian wine producers for its impressive wines and careful growing methods (the vineyards are all organically farmed, without the use of pesticides or herbicides). The winery has been renovated and everything, from the beautiful stone floors to the French oak barrels, is infused with elegance. Spend an afternoon at this peaceful masseria having a tour and tasting followed by a lunch of assorted antipasti, sheeps milk cheeses, grilled vegetables and more.
Feudi di Guagnano. This boutique winery was founded by five young entrepreneurs with the goal of saving the Negroamaro vineyards that were abandoned by now-elderly winemakers. For 10 euros you can taste through several delicious wines, served with a variety of snacks.
Leone de Castris. Started in 1665, this is the oldest winery in Salice Salentino. The winery produces award-winning fine wines. Learn the history of the winery and the region while tasting a sample of their fabulous wines.
Due Palme. One of the region’s largest wineries, this cooperative works with more than a thousand members who take care of 2500 hectares of vineyards. Enjoy a tour of the facilities with a tasting and lunch. Several bottles of wine are available for purchase.
Mottura Vini del Salento. These great Salento wines are produced in state-of-the-art facilities located in ancient vaults. Enjoy a tour of the winemaking facilities followed by a tasting of their sumptuous wines.