Negroamaro is planted widely across Puglia, the sun scorched, heel-shaped region located in the South of Italy. It produces deep coloured, full bodied red wines that offer plenty of tannin, good levels of natural acidity and a fruit profile tending towards plum and prune. Negroamaro wines also seem to impart an earthy characteristic but the reality is that styles and standards of its cultivation and production mean Negroamaro is not an easy variety to pin down.
Almost certainly of Greek origin, Negroamaro is thought to be named after its propensity to give very dark coloured wines. One theory, which has certainly taken root amongst producers in the Salento area of Puglia where the variety grows prominently, suggests Negro, meaning black in Latin, and Maru or Mavro meaning black in Greek, has given the grape its current identity.
On international markets Negroamaro is a relatively new force. For many years it held a rather ignominious reputation, being seen (incorrectly) as a blending component in a plethora of obscure DOCs, or even more unfortunately as second fiddle to the widely exported Primitivo. Recently though there has been a strong reversal in the way Negroamaro is viewed. Many quality focussed producers, particularly in the Salento which covers the province of Lecce and parts of Brindisi, are showcasing the variety for its undoubted potential to make excellent wines.
Many are straight, monovarietal wines. They are labelled as Salento IGP and range from simple, tank produced wines designed to be drunk within a few years of the vintage, to more structured, barrel aged wines. I personally find Negroamaro a variety that needs plenty of attention in the cellar. It needs constant supervision during fermentation and seems (which grape isn’t) particularly prone to picking up bitter notes. Aggressive extraction can easily lead to bitter wines.
Perhaps this was widely understood a century ago, for Negroamaro has a long tradition of being utilised as a grape for making rosato wines. Of course, this was not due to pushy export demands, instead, it was likely the result of a lighter pressing to avoid bitter flavours; as a result, it gave a lighter colour.
The key DOC for Negroamaro is Salice Salentino. It can appear here as a red or indeed as a rosé wine. Many vineyards here are interplanted with the black Malvasia Nera (the result of a cross between Negroamaro and Malvasia Bianca Lunga) and since it tends to ripen at the same time is often co-fermented. Historically Malvasia Nera provided some additional colour and perfume to Negroamaro, again, suggestive of Negroamaro’s potential to provide bitter flavours when not done well.
The Salice Salentino DOC permits up to 20% of Malvasia Nera for its red wines, while in neighbouring Copertino up to 30% can added, even if here Montepulciano is normally the desired blending partner for Negroamaro. Perhaps this is for differentiation purposes.
Like in most areas of Puglia oak is the big talking point. The region is dominated by large bottlers famed for knocking out large quantities of poor quality wine. A judicious use of oak, combined with high residual sugar can sometimes make up for a lack of quality in the fruit. Yet, for more serious producers, oak provides an opportunity to produce structured, age worthy wines that can showcase Negroamaro as a fine wine grape.
Other than a handful of producers though, such as Apollonio Vini, who have a long production history intertwined with the use of oak, Puglia is not a region with a legacy of barrel aged wines. Long hot summers and a lack of suitable cellar space meant that it was wise to consume wines young. Concrete tanks dominated before introduction of temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. Additionally, the region’s typical cuisine of vegetables and fresh fish is not exactly suited to big red wines matured in wood.
Some producers are even experimenting with Negroamaro vinified as a white wine. While they can be quite good, they’re perhaps better viewed as a simple local quirk than a serious direction for the variety.