Varvaglione 12 e Mezzo Negroamaro 19
The wine-growing region of Puglia is almost instantly recognized when it's described as "the heel of Italy's boot." The long thin Salento Peninsula extends south along the Adriatic Sea to the west and along the Gulf of Taranto to the east. The terroir here is nearly perfect for viticulture. Long, searing summer days with nights cooled by the steady coastal breezes encourage maximum ripeness. Thousands of families in the region take advantage of this climate and the limestone-rich soils, providing the local coops with a practically endless volume of grapes.
As you travel south towards Puglia, you'll notice the gradual shift from Central European culture to a distinctly Mediterranean vibe, with more of a Greek, Spanish and Turkish flavor. Further south, the rolling hills of Northern Puglia gently melt into the vast, flat farmland of Southern Puglia. The wine also changes here, shifting from the Atlantic and Central European grape sets to the indigenous grapes of South-Western Italy -- Vermentino, Nero di Troia, Negroamaro, and the region's workhorse, Primitivo.
For generations, grape-growers in the vast flat farmland of Puglia produced copious amounts of low-quality wines, destined for blending or trucking off to distilleries to become grappa or vermouth. This all changed when some families in the region decided to focus on quality instead of quantity. The Varvaglione family was one of the first to make that change.
The Varvaglione estate was established in 1921, and during the early years, they sold and traded their fruit strictly within the local coop. Second-generation vigneron Angelo Varvaglione was the first in the family to produce wine under the family's name commercially. In those years, he produced vino sfuso, an everyday wine made for immediate, pleasurable consumption. Locals would come and fill their own vessels, paying by the liter, like filling up your tank at a gas station.
Third-generation vigneron Cosimo Varvaglione introduced more changes by focusing the family's attention strictly on native, indigenous grapes. In the early 2000s, Cosimo and his wife Maria-Teresa -- a business-savvy accountant -- started to bottle their estate wines and market them internationally.
Here's where it gets particularly interesting. Over the last ten years, all three of Cosimo and Maria-Teresa's children, Marzia, Angelo, and Francesca, joined the family business. Their focus was on improving the family's wines both inside and out -- with fresh labeling and graphic design on the outside and, most importantly, making sure the best quality wine is inside the bottle.
This new focus resulted in the family's latest line of wines -- the 12 e Mezzo label. The name translates to "12 and a half," alluding to the 12.5 percent alcohol level of the 12 e Mezzo line. This is especially remarkable, considering most of the Primitivo typically produced in the region can run as high as 16%! To bottle this Primitivo at the 12.5% alcohol level, the family harvest from the estate's younger vine holdings, averaging 10-12 years in age.
The grapes are harvested five or six days earlier than their other parcels of Primitivo and are fermented at a significantly lower temperature. The brilliant result is a rich, deeply satisfying glass of Primitivo that's a couple of degrees lower in alcohol. This innovative method certainly fuels hope for an antidote to climate change in the vineyard!
In your glass, after a quick swirl, the Primitivo delivers a burst of dark red and blue fruit on the nose and palate. There's a lovely balance of soft, silky fruit, generous lift and acidity, and ripe, velvety tannins, all inviting sip after sip. Notes of dark plum and blueberry mix with brown spice, cocoa, and just a hint of vanilla on the palate lead to the pleasingly lifted finish. I find this to be a tremendously versatile red for food pairings and would love this with pasta, pizza, and burgers, all the way to grilled chops and steak.
Thanks to the aging in extra-large French tonneau, you'll find the Negroamaro to be a little softer and more fruit-forward in your glass. Like the Primitivo, the focus is on blue fruits with soft, supple tannins leading to a lengthy finish with notes of vanilla, cocoa, and spice. I find the Negroamaro to be even more suitable for pasta, pizza, and practically anything with red sauce.