This week’s column is being filed from the town of Bari in Puglia, a port city at the top of the heel of Italy.
We are in full-fledged summertime weather here, the mercury constantly surpassing the 30-degree mark, but the breeze coming from the Adriatic Sea, making local palm trees rustle and carrying the pretty perfumed notes of local jasmine shrubs and vines, keeps things nice and fresh.
I’ve been brought here as an international judge for an annual wine competition called Radici del Sud, which was created 14 years ago to determine the best varietal wines from Italy’s southern regions of Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Sicily, and here in Puglia. More on the results of the competition to come next week.
While I’ve had the opportunity to tour around a couple of these regions, it’s my first time right here in Puglia that’s currently tugging at my heart. Squint, and Bari could be a myriad of European cities: a twisty maze of alleys and corridors in the old part of town, full of bustling cafés, people strolling, and nonnas hanging laundry to dry from second-floor windows.
With considerable heat during the summer in local vineyards, the wines tend to be ripe, round, and juicy, made mostly from any of dozens of indigenous grapes, although it’s not ridiculously uncommon to see international varieties like Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
My appetite has been voracious, and there’s been nary a disappointment over my seven days here.
One of my favourite local foods is a bite-size, rather simple cross between, oh, let’s say a cracker, bread stick, pretzel, and bagel called taralli. In their most basic form, they’re made from wheat flour, yeast, and olive oil, but riffs on them are known to include fennel seeds, chilis, or pepper. Locally, they can be found at Bosa Foods.
Starting an evening (or late afternoon) out with a handful of ’em, along with a regional white or pink wine, is probably the easiest way to enjoy an authentic Puglian experience, although there’s plenty of other fodder.
Minestrone soup is common here, as is beef or pork ragout; and starting out a meal with a plate of things like prosciutto, ricotta, and buffalo mozzarella is a habit I’ve easily taken to. Bari being on the water, local fish and octopus are in abundance.
My top dish of the trip, though, is orecchiette con le cime di rapa. Dead- simple to make: the ear-shaped pasta is tossed with turnip greens, olive oil, anchovies, and fried bread crumbs, and can easily be tucked into alongside local whites, pinks, and reds.
Speaking of which, let’s look at a few locally available examples of Puglian varieties that’ll round out any similar fare.
Rivera Bombino Bianco 2018
($18.99, Marquis Wine Cellars)
The late-ripening Bombino Bianco variety can be pretty simple or neutral, but sometimes that’s we want when the sun is blazing. Expect citrus like lime and yellow grapefruit, with Granny Smith apple notes and a subtle dose of salinity. If your next meal is from the sea, this one will probably do just fine.
Masseria Li Veli Fiano 2017
($27.74, Marquis Wine Cellars)
Fiano easily builds rich, age-worthy wines with apple, pear, and ginger notes that can often carry hazelnut components. When there’s a cheese-and-charcuterie plate on the table, wines like this are a no-brainer.
Crudo Organic Negroamaro Rosato 2017
($15.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)
Pink wines are common throughout Puglia, and these are quite the departure from the recent trend of Provence-inspired rosés that hardly carry any colour at all. This take on the Negroamaro grape is a juicy and opulent offering of red berry fruit, juniper berry, and some light herbal notes. I can’t often say this about a wine, but if you’re a fan of a Negroni, the celebrated cocktail composed of gin, Campari, and red vermouth, you’ll probably adore Negroamaro rosatos.
Torre Vento Torre Del Falco Nero Di Troia 2015
($18.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)
Plenty of violets on the nose, with black and purple berry fruit, along with notes of pepper and dried herbs, make this rich, red variety an exotic take on Syrah, in my opinion. And as a guy who absolutely loves Syrah, I mean that as a high compliment.
Tenuta Viglione Primitivo 2017
($19.99, B.C. Liquor Stores)
Pretty much the Old World version of Californian Zinfandel. When it comes to Primitivo, think bold and rich, dried dark-berry fruit, dates, cloves, cardamom, stained teeth, and hearty meats on the barbecue.