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This spring's Pittsburgh Wine Festival offered much more than the opportunity to taste 500-plus wines (if you are into marathon tasting). It also was a chance to have face-to-face conversations with 17 winery owners and winemakers who were in town for the event. That is how I became acquainted with Paolo Benegiamo, an Italian orthodontist and managing director of his family's wine-producing estate, L'Astore Masseria in the Lecce district of Puglia. Puglia is a strip of land between the Adriatic and Ionian seas that constitutes the heel of Italy's boot. Although it produces more wine than any other region of that country (17 percent of the national total), only small percentages are bottled and classified with one of the 25 named appellations in the region.
Puglia has a long and interesting history. Greek colonists settled in the area in the eighth century B.C. It was conquered by Rome in the fourth century A.D. By the 11th century it had become first a province of the kingdom of Sicily and later of the kingdom of Naples. The coast was occupied at times by the Turks and the Venetians, but in 1861 it joined Italy.
Until 1970, most Puglian wine was made by huge industrial wineries and shipped in bulk to Northern Italy and France, where it was blended or turned into vermouth. Today, there is an association of vintners and oenologists dedicated to producing quality wines, which are attracting the attention of wine drinkers around the world.
The traditional grape varieties in the Lecce region of Puglia are primitivo and negroamaro. Primitivo has been identified by DNA as the grape Americans named zinfandel. It is interesting to taste it alongside a bottle of California zinfandel to get a sense of the terroir differences between the two regions.
Negroamaro is a relative of pinot noir. Like pinot noir it produces a wine that is lighter in color and texture than the primitivo, with flavors of cherries and herbs predominating.
L'Astore Masseria bottles a rose wine made from 100 percent negroamaro and a white wine that is a blend of malvasia and chardonnay grapes, which I tasted and admired at the wine festival.
A few nights ago, with wild mushroom ravioli in sage butter sauce, we drank a bottle of L'Astore Masseria Filimei 2007 ($22.75). This is a light wine that doesn't overpower subtle food flavors. The leafiness of this wine was a perfect complement to the earthiness of the mushrooms. It begins with the impression of cherries and finishes with touches of licorice and spice, which add complexity. I also would serve it with any pasta with a cream sauce or with simple grilled fish.
Ending the meal with salad and cheese, we switched to Jema 2007 ($22.50), made of 100 percent primitivo. Jema is a big wine, weighty in the mouth. The initial impression is one of plum jam. The velvety texture, rich tannins and long finish made a most positive impact and provided the perfect foil for the smoked scamorza cheese made from sheep's milk and produced in the Puglian city of Bari, an Adriatic seaport. Jema also would pair nicely with any grilled or roasted meat.
L'Astore Masseria also produces olive oil and olives. The oil is made from cold-pressed Cellina Ogliarola fruit. With aromas of almonds and fresh herbs, it is a delicious accompaniment for crusty Italian bread, as well as ideal for seasoning fish ($15.50 for 50 centiliters). The oil is pressed in a cellar on the property dating from the early 1700s, using equipment from the same period. The farm also produces whole Cellina di Nardo olives in 12-ounce jars ($12.50). All L'Astore Masseria products are sold at Dreadnought Imports, 2013 Penn Ave. in the Strip District (412-391-1709). Wines are available by special order and require a 48-hour wait between order and delivery.
If you didn't have the opportunity to visit with the charming Dr. Benegiamo at the wine festival, I suggest that you try some of his impressive wines and see for yourself what a huge transformation is occurring in the quality of wines coming from the heel of Italy.
Elizabeth Downer: email@example.com .