The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
There's an amusing line – among many – associated with baseball great Yogi Berra, who was once asked whether he'd be dining at a fashionable restaurant. "Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded," he said. With apologies to the master of paradox and malapropisms, one could declare something of the opposite about the grape nero di Troia. Now that it's become so scarce, everybody's drinking it.
Well, maybe not everybody, but probably most wine drinkers with a passion for Italy's south, particularly the increasingly fashionable tourist destination of Puglia, which nero di Troia calls home. By the year 2000, plantings of this well-regarded red variety had declined to one-fifth their 1970 level, or from 9,000 hectares to just 1,782, where they have since held more or less steady.
Difficult to grow, the vine was uprooted mainly, it would appear, by growers lacking passion, patience and resources to produce quality juice. What's left has generally been treated with better attention, helping to elevate the vine's reputation. Besides that, over the past 20 years, a growing number of producers have been bottling the grape as a varietal wine rather than following the custom of mixing it with other varieties into blended reds named after local districts rather than grapes. In other words, the vine has getting prominent billing on bottles, which never hurts in the publicity department.
And there may be a third element to nero di Troia's happy reversal of fortune. Since the turn of the millennium or thereabouts, producers around the Puglia town of Troia increasingly placed their bets on a branding idea. Rather than call the grape by its official name, uva di Troia (or "grape" of troia), they began to use nero, which is Italian for "black." The change was said to be inspired by another variety from the south, Sicily's nero d'Avola, which had been gaining in popularity.
Yes, Troia. It translates as "Troy" and lies in northern Puglia near the city of Foggia, near the top of Italy's stiletto heel. Legend has it that the town was founded by Diomedes, a hero of Virgil's Aeneid, who was among the Greeks holed up inside the Trojan horse. Some say Greeks directly brought the vine to what is now Italy from the original location of Troy in what is now Turkey. Others have put forth another theory, that it came from Cruja in nearby Albania. I vote for the first explanation, though I wouldn't place any bets on the Diomedes connection.
In the popularity department, nero di Troia still ranks a distant third among native reds to Puglia's better-known Primitivo and Negroamaro. Unlike those signature grapes, which can be relied on for ample weight and sweet ripeness, it tends to yield wines that are medium-bodied and sturdy, with the sort of firm backbone that can enchant a starched-collar sommelier obsessed with finding the next great food-versatile beverage. There's often a savoury, tobacco-and-tar quality to the wines, too, along with a mixed-berry character, placing them, I think, in the centre of a Venn diagram that overlaps pinot noir with syrah and nebbiolo.
High in astringent tannins and very late in ripening, the grape is tough to grow. Pick early to preserve acid freshness and you risk harvesting fruit with harsh, green tannins. And because the clusters tend to ripen unevenly, it helps to make several passes through the vineyard over the course of days or weeks to pull off only fruit that's at its peak.
No wonder nero di Troia historically was relegated almost exclusively to blended wines, where it could supply tannic backbone or – if picked early – fresh acidity to other grapes grown under Puglia's grape-ripening sunshine. Those blends go by such names as Rosso di Barletta, Rosso Canosa, Orta Nova and, sadly the only one widely found outside Puglia, Castel del Monte Rosso, named after a landmark "castle of the mountain" built in the 13th century by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
One consistently reliable example, distributed with on-and-off frequency to retail stores in Canada, is Rivera Il Falcone Riserva Castel del Monte, a blend of mostly nero di Troia with montepulciano. The more likely place to encounter nero di Troia is on the smart wine list of a fashionable Italian restaurant, the sort that I, for one, don't go to any more because it's too crowded.