Were it not for a global pandemic, 2020 was destined to be a big year for Puglia’s rosati. Salento in particular, with its charming fishing villages and dreamy blood-orange sunsets, was set to star. The word is out! Trendy new wine bars look over the Ionian Sea and send up “cin cins” to the sound of clinking glasses and the splash of rosé.

Despite the prolonged Covid crisis, we can be thankful this is no fad. Salento’s tradition of rosato wine dates to the peninsula’s colonisation by Ancient Greek settlers, who planted vines such as Negroamaro, Nero di Troia and Malvasia Nera. These have adapted over centuries and remain principal varieties to this day.

While viticulture prospered, the process of vinification was an altogether more complex challenge. Keeping wine cool and preventing rapid oxidisation on these hot coastal plains has always been difficult. In the absence of hillsides that could be hollowed into cellars, the only solution was to make wines that could be consumed immediately after the harvest. Light pressings and short maceration periods resulted in the pale coloured style we know today as rosé.

Throughout the provinces of Lecce, Taranto, Brindisi and Bari, the culture of drinking rosato has stood the test of time. One would be forgiven for associating Puglia with the deep purple-stained wines of Primitivo; the ones that promise abundant ripe fruit and which have put the region on the map as a source of good value. Yet most companies only started bottling their wines in the late 80s and 90s.

Much of the region’s structured wine scene developed in line with demand from elsewhere, initially from wineries in the North who felt a bit of extra sunshine might rescue a difficult year, but latterly also from thirsty foreign markets in Germany, the UK and US. While these wines may have brought international recognition for Puglia, they are, in style terms at least, not really Puglian.

Puglia’s seasonal cuisine relies on vegetables and fish. Meat is often not sourced locally, and its full-bodied red partner represents a somewhat alien, modern invention; fatto per gli Americani as the contadino would say - made for the Americans. Over a family lunch it is the rosato that flows, and these wines have suddenly found themselves at the height of summer drinking fashion.

Clearly, much of Puglia’s pink wine revival can be put down to the enormous commercial success of the pale dry rosé coming out of Provence. Made with a faint kiss of colour, the best of these wines rely on freshness and the uplifting aromas of white flower and strawberry fruit. In fact, so great is the demand for vins Provençal, a series of breakaway territories have formed their own appellations in order to safeguard quality and differentiate from the wave of copy-cat examples that threaten the region’s glamorous reputation.

Are Puglia’s rosati just as good? Perhaps the most obvious area of confusion arises in talk of colour. A line-up of the one-hundred best of Salento will reveal a rainbow of shades, ranging from deep orange into salmon blush and out toward candy pink. Inevitably, some winemakers will seek to chase the proceeds of a ready-made market, and as far as the varieties permit, we can sometimes see the influence of the French Riviera in the glass. Conversely though, there is still admiration for the old school method made popular in the 70s, as exemplified by the absurdly deep carnival pink of Candido’s long serving ‘Pozzelle’ bottling. Both styles warrant attention.

Identifying exactly what Puglian rosato is, or should be, can be fraught with difficulty, but in recognising what it can be, we may find ourselves amongst a bounty of outstanding wines - and without the French swagger, most are priced ludicrously low. The late, great Severino Garofan once famously described rosato as “the wine of a single night”, the product of between twelve and twenty-four hours’ maceration; just enough for some fruit, some gentle tannins and a splash of colour. It is this simplistic approach that allows the natural characteristics of the growing area to step forward.

Typically assembled with Negroamaro, a grape of robust structure and tense red fruit character, these wines are able to capture the balance between youthful fun and elegant maturity. Old vines, some planted nearly a century ago, help support statements of quality, but most growers prefer to put quality down to “lu sule, lu mare, lu ientu” - the sun, the sea, and the wind.

Where Puglia’s rosati earn respect, beyond their berry fruit and maritime salinity, is their ability to age. Older rosé is often dismissed, but many of these wines have faced down accusations of a short shelf life admirably. With Negroamaro’s characteristic tannic structure, intense flavour and generous acidity, the potential for development is strong.

In Leone de Castris there is demonstrable tradition. In 1943 they bottled and sold the first rosato in Italy and it remains the same to this day - nine parts Negroamaro, one part Malvasia Nera. ‘Five Roses’ is an emblem of Salento’s winemaking history and a worthy introduction to the region’s library of fresh, authentic and food friendly wines.