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An Apulian Moment: Sauteed olives and southern Italian reds
by Jonathon Alsop
January 2000

Ancient Romans used to write disparagingly of their neighbors to the north, the Germans, Gauls, Britons and Belgians whom they conquered from time to time. The Romans found them all essentially crude and vulgar, unfinished and raw as the uncooked bread their complexions suggested.

Their problem was obvious to the Romans: the people of the north were just too far away from the sun, doomed to cultural dankness and pallor in all things. The Romans were basically right (except for the doom part), and they carried with them a food remedy in the form of wine.

Wine extends the viability of harvest, so it's a practical solution to harvesting a lot of fruit. If you had a ton of grapes, you could easily consume it as wine over a couple of years. It would be tough for you and the family to eat the same amount before it all turned to raisins, even if you wanted to.

On a sensual level, wine extends summer into winter as well. The juice in the bottle is the very rain that fell that summer, sucked up through the roots of the vine, saved in the grape, and made into wine. A good wine always has the soul of summer in it, and even in winter, it can bring us back a little piece of the green season.

As the weather turns truly frigid here in the northern hemisphere, I like to warm up with some hot, sunny red wines from Puglia, the "heel" of the Italian boot.

Puglia is a very up-and-coming food and wine region that's still relatively undiscovered. More Greek than Italian in cuisine and geography, the region is famous for hot Mediterranean weather, robust reds, and almost no white wines.

Primitivo is the main red grape of Puglia. Proved to be the parent of California Zinfandel, it is fruity and tannic with lots of ripe, sweet flavors. Negromauro, local dialect for "black and bitter," is the other red grape. Most wines are a blend of these two and others.

As a rule, wines from Puglia are rustic and robust, full of flavor. and almost roasted tasting. Best of all, as an officially undiscovered wine region, the wines are very undervalued. Most are below $10, and the top specimens are around $10.

1999 Tiamo "Puglia Rosso" (about $8, at Best Cellars in Brookline): It's from Puglia, it's red, what else are you going to call it but Puglia Rosso? Typical, fruity, a good intro to the region.

1998 Pervini "Bizantino" (about $10, distributed by Classic in eastern Mass.): A blend of Primitivo and Negromauro, this wine is rich and hardy, tasting of sap and smelling like smoke and wood. Hard to believe this is only $10.

1997 Dr. Taurino Salice Salentino "Riserva" (about $10. Distributed by MRR in eastern Mass.): This wine was my personal introduction to Puglia, and it remains a favorite. First of all, the winery holds back the wine from the market, so it's always a slightly better aged vintage all the time, in this case, the awesome 1997 vintage. Secondly, the tannins are beautiful and the rustic fruit of the wine is tamed by them. Finally, it’s delicious and a bargain.

This recipe is deceptively easy, but the effect of sautéing the olives for even a few minutes is profound. Don't be afraid to run with it and add artichoke hearts or a little chopped bacon.

Sauteed olives
Makes about two cups

1/4 cup olive oil
4 whole cloves garlic
1 pound mixed olives
4 canned Italian plum tomatoes, chunked
1 big pinch Rosemary
1 big pinch chopped parsley
1/4 cup white wine

Heat the olive oil, add the garlic, and brown lightly. Add the olives and saute 3-5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the herbs and cook 1 minute. Stir once, add the wine, lower heat and cook slowly for 15 minutes. Serve immediately with thin toasted Italian bread.

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