Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Nero di Troia: The Other Puglian Varietal

Castel del MonteAfter decades -- centuries, even -- of being considered vini da taglio -- big, tannic, alcoholic, color-laden wines to be blended into wines from other regions that needed a boost -- Puglia's wines are at last attracting positive critical attention. Much of this attention initially went to the wines of Southern Puglia, first the Negroamaro produced between Brindisi and Lecce, and then the Primitivo produced in the Salentino; that Primitivo is closely related to California's Zinfandel certainly helped.
However, more recently northern Puglian varietals have also begun to attract attention, in particular Nero di Troia, which is grown north of Bari, and is one of the more important components in Castel del Monte DOC. It's not the easiest grape to work with, says Rivera's Sebastiano De Corato. It was traditionally grown for volume, and therefore farmers preferred clones that produced large compact bunches, with fairly large grapes; because of the structure of the bunches ripening was uneven, and as a result almost every bunch had a few unripe grapes, which contributed harsh unripe tannins. Rivera has found vines that produce smaller, looser bunches of grapes that ripen more uniformly in their vineyards and is propagating them, though it's too soon to speak of clonal selections or anything along those lines -- the first certified Aglianico clone was only presented last year, and much more work needs to be done on the other southern varietals before they can be certified.

Unlike Negroamaro and Primitivo, both of which ripen early (Primitivo doesn't mean primitive in this context, but rather early ripening), and are harvested by the end of August, Nero di Troia is a late ripening varietal, and at Rivera they start to harvest it in the first or second week of October. Sebastiano de Corato says this influences the style of the wines, which tend to be fresher. He is using his selections of Nero di Troia to make two wines:
Puer Apulie and Violante. Puer Apulie, named in honor of Frederick II of Swabia, the 13th Century holy Roman Emperor who whose love of Puglia earned him the nickname Puer Apulie (Son of Puglia) is a big, concentrated wine that uses new wood to balance the grape tannins, and has the potential to age very well. Production is low, on the order of 8-10,000 bottles per year, and it's Rivera's most expensive wine.
Violante, which is being introduced this year, is less charged and considerably more accessible.

I tasted a prerelease vat sample of the 2004 Violante, which had spent a couple of months on the lees, with battonage to stir things about and oxygenate the wine.
Impenetrable purple ruby with ruby rim. The bouquet is fresh, and bright, with violets mingled with plum and cherry blossoms, supported by red berry fruit -- strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries -- some graphite shavings, and a fair amount of alcohol. Very fresh, and impressive for a barrel sample. On the palate it's a big wine, with powerful plum-laced cherry fruit that has some berry fruit jam overtones; it gains definition from some brambly graphite bitterness from grapes, and from some tart acidity, while the tannins have a pleasant brambly burr that carries through into a long brambly plum finish. Quite nice, in a powerful and fairly graceful key, and will drink very well with grilled meats, including fattier cuts, or with stews. Something to keep an eye out for.
2 stars

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2004
Much darker than the Violante, with pigeon blood ruby rim; it too is a barrel sample (release date 2006), and has a much more disjointed nose than its lesser sibling, with the oak strongly overshadowing the wine, while there are violets that manage to emerge from around the edges, mingled with some berry fruit. But it's mostly cedar. On the palate it's full, and concentrated, with rich plum fruit laced with berry fruit jam, and supported by smooth sweet tannins that have considerable oaky bitterness as well. It's going to be impressive in a strongly fruit driven key in the future, and if you like this sort of charged wine you will like it very much; it's a distinct step up from the 2003 vintage, and this is both the vintage at work and the slightly greater age of the vines.
Too young to score, but something to wait for.

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2003
This is made from a younger vineyard. It's impenetrable violet pigeon blood ruby with pigeon blood ruby rim. The bouquet is powerful and very fresh, like sniffing violets stuck in a jam pot, with some wood smoke that has yet to fold in, and some bitter almond as well, and underlying cedar. Charged; it brings to mind body builders. On the palate it's full, powerful, and also very young, with intense plum fruit supported by tannins that have a pleasing graphite burr and bitter smoky cedar overtones from wood that have yet to amalgamate; there are also hints of sweetness likely related to the long hot summer from which it came. It comes across as fairly direct -- a massive wine that has considerable character -- but one can also sense the youth of the vines; they have a ways to go, and future vintages will have more depth. In short, I found it one-dimensional. Not bad, but one-dimensional. In any case, give it 2-3 years to develop, and expect it to age well for a decade or more.
2 stars

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2002
This is made from grapes taken from the 35 year old trellis-trained vineyard that also yields Il Falcone. It's impenetrable pigeon blood ruby with black cherry rim, and has a richer bouquet, with toasted hazelnuts and violets mingling with balsam and sea salt, and underlying spice and red berry fruit backed by some raw meat, and some lacy acidity. It's much more mature than the 2003, and this is in part related to the vintage, and in part to the greater maturity of the vineyard. On the palate it's again much further along, with tart, almost sour plum berry fruit that reflects the vintage, supported by tannins that are much softer than those of the 2003 -- again the vintage at work -- though they do have a slight burr, and flow into a clean rather tannic finish. It has greater depth than the 2003, but is less substantial, so they are probably correct in their decision to go with the young vineyard, which has much greater potential. The 2002 is in any case extremely elegant, and has a great deal to say, perhaps because of the difficulties posed by the 2002 vintage, which was poor throughout Italy.

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2001
Impenetrable pyrope ruby with deep cherry rim. The bouquet is powerful, and delicate in its power, with red berry fruit and some cedar that mingle with raw beef, violets, hardwood ash, and with time underbrush; it's quick to write but has a lot going on. On the palate it's full, and rich, with intense cherry plum fruit supported by tannins that gain direction from both graphite bitterness and from wood-derived cedar, and it all flows into a warm tannic finish. It's frightfully young, much younger than the 2002, and needs more time to develop and show its best -- I'd give it another year or two to get its bearings, and then drink it with succulent grilled meats or roasts, or perhaps stewed game. By comparison with the 2002 it's more muscular, but less graceful, and though one cannot say that it lumbers, it is muscle bound in its youth. Concentration!
2 stars

Puer Apulie Castel del Monte DOC 2000
Deep pyrope ruby with hints of almandine in the rim. The bouquet is fairly rich, with cedar and bramble from grape laced with raw beef and nose tingling spice, while there is also quite a bit of alcohol and some underlying menthol. On the palate it's full, and quite smooth, with ample soft plum fruit that gains direction from some strawberry acidity, and is supported by smooth sweet tannins that flow into a long slightly sweet berry fruit finish with tannic underpinning. It's beginning to mature, and though it will improve with another year or two in bottle, will do nicely with a steak or hearty stew as is. Expect it to age well for at least 5-8 years. It definitely shows the potential of the wines that will come in the future.
2 stars

The Bottom Line: Nero di Troia has a great deal of potential, and we can expect it to yiled some extremely interesting wines in the coming years.

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