Negroamaro is my latest wine muse.
Prompted by the desire for something different, I came across the exotic Italian variety on a wine list loaded with affordable and entertaining twists and turns at chefs Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman’s award-winning Memphis restaurant, Hog & Hominy.
A week later at Antico Posto in Oak Brook, on the night before Thanksgiving, another Negroamaro proved to be the best value on the charming restaurant’s wine list.
As winemaker of Zonin’s estate Masseria Altemura, Antonio Cavallo works with vineyards in Puglia, where the varietal thrives in a sunny, warm, dry climate with poor soils. It’s an area that is the beating heart of Negroamaro.
In Puglia, specifically with wines Cavallo makes, Negroamaro excels because of a patient approach. When reached by email last week, the winemaker revealed some insider information when it comes to harvest.
“I love the challenge of having a late-harvest grape to work with,” Cavallo said. “The secret to making a great version of Negroamaro is picking a later harvest. Not at the point where the grapes dry but also not too early when the grapes are not ripe. When the fruit in the Negroamaro is mature, it is a very pleasing wine, where great care has to be given in finding out the right color and the right expression of Negroamaro.”
He found it with the Zonin Masseria Altemura Negroamaro IGT 2012 ($13) and its dusty cocoa flavors with a stream of dark chocolate running through the fruit flavors of black cherry and plum. The rustic tannins were well paired with grilled hanger steak.
Found in vineyards throughout Puglia, there’s a sliver of land Cavallo is partial to when it comes to Negroamaro.
“While Negroamaro is grown all over Puglia,” Cavallo said, “the best terroir for Negroamaro is in the Salento section, because it is a vigorous grape that needs a lot of sun, little rain and poor soils.”
Wines are approachable with tannins that are never overpowering. The fruit flavors, which range from red fruit and spice to dark chocolate and blackberry, are balanced and tasty.
“For aging Negroamaro, we use Slavonian oak casks, just to round out the texture and give a little complexity to complement the fruit,” Cavallo said. “Negroamaro tannins are smooth and silky by nature, so they don’t need barrique.”
Apollonio Rocca dei Mori Copertino 2015 ($12) is a blend of Negroamaro and Montepulciano. There’s baking spice and fresh red fruit flavors. Some characteristics are reminiscent of cool-climate Pinot Noir from California. It was paired with braciole and pasta, but so fresh and flavorful that it could be served with a wide variety of dishes.
Castello Monaci “Maru” 2016 ($13) was like a Pinot Noir crossed with a Sangiovese. I was smitten, and it led to further exploration at my local wine shop, where I found its big brother in Castello Monaci “Aiace” Salice Salentino Riserva 2013 ($25).
Aiace has baked strawberry, ripe raspberry and tea on a very juicy, medium-bodied red. There’s a puff of oak spice and just enough of a rustic feel from the tannins to add another dimension to the wine, whose vineyards are sustainably farmed in Puglia’s limestone, sand and clay soils on head trained vines.
It met its match with baked manicotti, meatballs and a daylong stove-top simmered gravy; the preparation alone warms up the coldest of days.
• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at email@example.com.