Few could deny the fact that when it comes to fine wines and even finer grape varietals, Southern Italy is a place of great wealth and plenty. It’s no coincidence that the ancient Greeks referred to it as Oenotria – the land of grapes – and it’s always a great pleasure for me to explore the sheer range of wines which come from this part of country.
Thanks to a number of different factors, including the stunning climatic conditions, the varied and mineral rich volcanic soils, and the thousands of years of history, expertise, and exploration, the grapes of southern Italy grow to beautiful levels of ripeness. As such, the vintners who work this land are capable of producing wines which truly capture the essence of the land, and which express everything which makes this part of the world special.
In this article, I’m going to be taking a closer look at one of the grape varietals which is synonymous with the fine wines of Puglia (the ‘heel’ which makes up the south-easterly peninsula of the Italian boot), the ever-intriguing and deeply flavourful Negroamaro.
For all my own explorations in Italian and global wine styles, Negroamaro wine is one which I return to time and time again. Why? Because for me, this wine is that which genuinely encapsulates everything I love about Italian wine, and indeed about Italy as a whole. Rustic, earthy, bursting with flavour, richness, and aromatic notes, it’s exactly the type of red wine which I look forward to enjoying at the end of a long day.
Comforting yet fascinating, ancient yet modern, simple yet complex, it’s a joyful contradiction in a glass, and a wine which immediately transports me to sunnier climes, happy memories, and the unforgettable taste of home. Let’s take a closer look at what makes the negroamaro grape so special, and what makes negroamaro wine a true Puglian classic and increasingly popular choice worldwide.
What is Negroamaro?
For at least 1,500 years, vintners and grape growers in Puglia, Italy, have been cultivating negroamaro grapes for wine production. This dark-skinned varietal grows in conical bunches, where its spherical berries hang tightly together – it really is the quintessential red wine grape in this regard, never looking anything less than utterly gorgeous on the vine.
The name ‘negroamaro’ or ‘negro amaro’ as it’s sometimes called, has been subjected to some debate over the past few decades (as is the case for so many European grape varietals!). Some claim that the name is a composite of the Italian words negro, meaning black, and amaro, meaning bitter, while others disagree. The debate arises from the fact that the hot southern Italian sunshine results in ripe grapes with high sugar levels, suggesting that the word ‘bitter’ in the name cannot be literal. As such, some have proposed that the name actually translates (through Latin-Greek derivations) as ‘dark black’, due to the inky-purple colour of the grape’s skin.
Traditionally, negroamaro grapes were mainly used for blending, and today this practice continues in several of the fine wines of the region. Indeed, winemakers will often blend negroamaro wines with Malvasia, Montepulciano, Primitivo or Malvasia Nera, as the negroamaro grape adds a depth of colour, berry fruit flavour, as well as those distinctive earthy tones which produce results which are far more than the sum of its parts.
However, negroamaro varietal wines are also commonplace, and are becoming increasingly more popular in the 21st century. I’ve watched with delight as wine fans around the world have begun expressing more and more of an interest in wines which are highly characteristic of a particular time and place (that all-important expression of terroir which we hear so much about nowadays), and the negroamaro wines of Salento – including the often-lauded Salice Salentino DOC wines – are the perfect example of this approach.
Interestingly, there is a long and proud history of producing rosé wines from negroamaro grapes. The deep colour of the skins lends just the right amount of blush to these wines, before its contact with the juices results in too much tannic character and colour. While negroamaro rosé has little presence on the international wine scene, it’s popular in Salento and in other areas of Puglia, and is tipped to make more of an impact overseas in the years to come.
History of the Grape
As is so often the case with Italian wine grapes, the precise history of negroamaro has been lost in the mists of time. So ancient is the viticultural history of southern Italy, it’s impossible to say exactly when it was first cultivated for winemaking, but looking at the historical and archeological record of the region, wine experts have agreed that it was most likely that negroamaro would have been brought to Italy in the 7th or 8th century BCE. It would have been first planted by the ancient Greeks – a culture which was completely enamoured with the climate and landscape of this part of Europe, and which did so much to establish the Italian wine scene as we know it today.
If it is true that negroamaro has been grown in the soils of Puglia for around 2,700 years, that makes it one of the oldest Italian grapes still in cultivation today. One can only imagine, then, how deep is the expertise, skill, and knowledge of those families who have been working with Salento wine and this specific grape varietal for so many generations. With that amount of time, a grape can truly find its ultimate modes of expression, and there’s little wonder that there are now such strict protective laws governing the way the DOCs in Puglia are handled and preserved.
The Present Home of Negroamaro
As everybody knows, location is key to understanding quality Italian wines. There’s not only the history, unique culture, and cuisine to consider when thinking about the location and character of a wine, but a whole range of other things to factor in, as well.
Despite having a reputation for being permanently sun-baked and Mediterranean in climate, Italy is a country of massive variation when it comes to things like average temperatures, rainfall, and wind direction and strength – all things which can enormously affect the way grapes grow and ripen. As such, knowing about the traditional and contemporary home of negroamaro should lead us to further understand why this grape results in such a particular type of wine.
Today, negroamaro grapes are almost exclusively grown in Puglia. While there have been successful examples of negroamaro wines produced in the New World (most notably in California), it’s not difficult to argue that the grape’s truest expression can be found in its spiritual and historic home in southern Italy. After all, this is where it has adapted over two and a half millennia to become the vine we know and love today, and negroamaro is planted across an impressive 17,000 hectares of Puglian land.
The most famous subregions and appellations for negroamaro are those of Salento, where the grape has been grown for the longest, and where the finest examples of this wine style can be found. Salento wine has captivated fans of Italian red wine for generations, and the region boasts precisely the right conditions needed for the grapes to reach optimal ripeness. Indeed, in the Salento peninsula of Puglia, we find the beautiful appellation of Salice Salentino DOC, where perhaps the ‘truest’ expression of this grape is produced.
Salice Salentino, however, is far from being alone as a negroamaro appellation, as all across the regions of Lecce and Brindisi, there are dozens of DOC wines produced which call for a minimum of 80% negroamaro in their blend, and several which require winemakers to exclusively use this grape.
In neighbouring Taranto (and especially in the province of Foggia), negroamaro plays a key blending role in the DOC wines found, where winemakers use between 15-30% of this varietal in their blend. Despite it being a lesser-used varietal in this province of Puglia, it’s still regarded as a deeply important part of the wine culture, and the negroamaro grape remains prized for its colour, body, flavour, and aroma.
Climatic conditions, soil types, and production methods
Puglia, and especially the Salento Peninsula, are among the hottest parts of Italy. This is a landscape which is often parched by an extreme lack of rainfall, despite its proximity to two seas which sit either side of the peninsula. As such, any grapes which grow here must be by nature extremely hardy and drought-resistant, which is certainly the case with negroamaro, and goes some way to explain why it became such an important varietal for the region.
It’s likely that the Greeks (who have more than their fair share of drought-stricken landscapes) would have been highly aware of this when they planted those first vines in Puglia. Today, the hardiness and strength of the negroamaro vine and its berries allows the vintners to have reasonably reliable harvests, with the kind of low, consistent yields which bring about such characterful results.
One of the key features of Negroamaro Salento and negroamaro wines from elsewhere in Puglia is the presence of old ‘heritage’ vines. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon to find negroamaro vines in Salento which are edging on 100 years old (with many others being over seventy years old), which is said to bring about a more desirable, age-worthy character in the wines they produce.
Negroamaro wine is processed using a combination of traditional methods with minimal chemical intervention, and modern technology and equipment designed to eke out the very finest expression from this wonderful grapes. I’m also hearing more and more about natural, organic, and even biodynamic wineries in Puglia working with negroamaro, which demonstrates again that eagerness in the market for authentic, traditional, flavourful Italian wines.
Characteristics of the Wine
Two and a half thousand years of history has laid down some fairly solid foundations for negroamaro wines, but despite its incredible heritage in Puglia, this wine is still evolving, with winemakers further exploring the potential of the grape varietal, and finding new ways to hit those high notes of expression. No matter how the wine is produced however, the prized characteristics of negroamaro remain more or less the same… and that’s no bad thing at all.
Generally speaking, negroamaro wines have a beautifully deep purple colour (as one might expect from such a deeply coloured grape), with a medium tannic quality which, when aged, softens beautifully to create a remarkably silky wine capable of bursting with all manner of flavours and aromas.
Despite the fact that this isn’t a heavy or strongly tannic wine in comparison to say, a New World Cabernet Sauvignon, it retains that boisterous, rustic, and boldly intense quality which is quite typical of wines from Puglia. As far as alcohol content goes, again, negroamaro is typically Puglian in being slightly stronger than average. Alcohol levels of up to 15.5% are quite normal, with moderate acidity to boot.
I’ve encountered a wide array of different negroamaro wines, and they all tend to offer something a little different. From the highly drinkable, open, and relaxed table versions served at cafes and restaurants across Puglia, to the more refined, complex, and sophisticated bottles of private collections, there’s always plenty to explore. As such, it can sometimes be difficult to pin down the exact organoleptic qualities of this wine, but generally speaking, negroamaro produces aromas of dark hedgerow fruits (think ripe blackberries), cedar, leather, and tobacco, as well as a characteristic earthiness which is utterly divine. Flavour-wise, expect jammy fruits, plums, black currants and cherries, and a set of spice notes which range from cloves to cinnamon and cocoa.
Negroamaro and Food Pairing
Being so hearty, negroamaro is a wonderful food pairing wine which is considered to be highly food-friendly, especially for dishes already associated with the cuisine of southern Italy. Negroamaro is very happily paired with:
- Charcuterie and antipasti, especially spiced salami and other spiced, cured meats
- The boldness of negroamaro loves the fattiness of lamb, and complements the depth of flavour found in slow cooked Italian-style lamb, as well as with lamb stews and aromatic dishes like Moroccan lamb tagine, and Indian lamb Rogan Josh.
- This traditional Italian side dish is a stew of slow cooked onion, garlic, tomatoes and peppers, served with torn herbs.
- Grilled tuna steaks. Perhaps surprisingly, this wine pairs very nicely with seared and grilled tuna, especially when served with grilled peppers and aubergine.
Top Recommendations to Try
For me, my favourite negroamaro wines are always going to be those which I’m served at a simple street cafe in the Salento region of Puglia. They’re always served at the right temperature (which changes depending on the time of year, as a slightly chilled negroamaro in the midst of summer can be a wonderful thing to enjoy), and with the optimal level of oxidation which allows all those flavours to dance on the palate. If you’re not able to do a trip to this part of the world, check out these wonderful examples of negroamaro wines from top Puglian producers.
- Agricola Vallone 100% Negroamaro
- Liante Salice Salento 80% Negroamaro by Castello Monaci
- Eloquenzia by Azienda Monaci
- Cappello di Prete by Candido
- Piromafo Salento by Valle del’Asso
Negroamaro: An Ancient Grape of True Puglian Character
There you have it – my quick guide to the charms and features of negroamaro, a grape which has fascinated and beguiled for centuries, and which is experiencing something of an ascendency right now.
It’s always going to be a wine which reminds me of the simple pleasures of home, and yet its ability to be also used in sophisticated, refined, and elegant wines never ceases to amaze and inspire. If you’re yet to discover negroamaro, I urge you to head out and explore this stunning varietal – it’s sure to become a new favourite.