Quick quiz: What will be the hottest up-and-coming wine country in the next century? Most likely, your search for an answer is taking you down the list of emerging New World powers such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. Any of these would be good guesses, but I believe you'd do even better to pick a country lying at the heart of classical winedom: Italy.

This may seem surprising (since we're not supposed to look for new tricks from old dogs), but my tastings and travels have convinced me that Italy will be a powerhouse in coming decades for both high-end wines and bargain bottlings.

Thanks to a host of recent improvements (especially in viticulture), high-priced collectibles will emerge from many areas other than Tuscany and Piedmont. Even more exciting is the virtual certainty that southern Italy will awaken from its slumber to become a competitive giant by producing big wines at little prices.

For southern regions like Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia, the future is exceedingly bright. For Puglia, the future is already here, in the sense that a significant number of very strong, increasingly recognizable wines are already available in America. In many years this region (situated on the heel of the Italian "boot" and called "Apulia") produces more wine than any other Italian district, and in the entire world only six countries have higher production.

However, export-quality bottlings from Puglia are a relatively new phenomenon. Even today, little more than 2 percent of the wine finds its way into classified bottlings from the area's 24 appellations, with the remainder being distilled, used for blending or as a base for vermouth, or turned into grape concentrate. Puglia had a reputation as a place suited solely to plonk production until a Salice Salentino (made predominantly from Negroamaro) produced by Dr. Cosimo Taurino suddenly became a best-selling bargain in America a decade ago.

Thanks in large part to the success of Taurino (who died earlier this year), Salice Salentino has acquired an ever-wider reputation as Italy's strongest value in red wine during a period when prices for many Chiantis have risen into the mid-teens. With the recent discovery that another of the region's major red grapes, Primitivo, is genetically identical to California's Zinfandel, Puglia has become a double-barreled threat. Zinfandel is currently riding an unprecedented wave of popularity among American consumers, many of whom are likely to seek out the newfound, less-expensive Italian sibling.

What they'll find is that typical Primitivos have just as much character as California Zinfandels, but with a leaner, less jammy profile that helps them work well with a broader range of foods. This may prove surprising to wine-savvy Zin lovers, since jammy richness is associated with hot growing regions and southern Italy is notoriously torrid. However, much of Puglia benefits from the cooling effects of peninsular placement between the Adriatic and Ionian seas.

Most of the Puglia wines now available here are either Primitivos or Salice Salentinos, but we can look forward to an impending influx of offerings from other top appellations such as Alezio, Brindisi, Copertino, Leverano, Matino and Squinzano. Puglia seems to be too warm to produce whites with much aroma or finesse, but it is a wonderful source for dry Rosato (or Rose). An excellent example of an astonishing price is Mocavero Rosato del Salento 1998 ($6, distributed by Kysela).

The best currently available reds are listed below in order of preference within categories, with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses:


Felline Primitivo di Manduria 1997 ($13, Bacchus); Mocavero Primitivo del Salento 1997 ($9, Kysela); A Mano Puglia Primitivo 1998 ($11, Bacchus); Pervini Primitivo del Tarantino "I Monili" 1996 ($8, Constantine in Md.); Vecchia Torre Primitivo del Salento 1997 ($10, Dionysos); Pervini Primitivo di Manduria 1996 ($10, Dionysos).

Salice Salentino

Mocavero "Puteus" 1990 ($12, Kysela); Leone de Castris Reserve 1996 ($11, Washington Wholesale); Mocavero 1997 ($9, Kysela); Apollonio 1997 ($8, Wine Source); Taurino Riserva 1995 ($9, Wine Source); Maiana 1996 ($8.50, Washington Wholesale).

Various Appellations

Felline Rosso del Salento "Alberello" 1997 ($10, Bacchus); Tiamo Puglia Rosso 1998 ($9, Franklin); Santa Lucia Castel del Monte 1997 ($10, Bacchus); Pervini Salento Rosso "Bizantino" 1996 ($9.50, Dionysos); Vecchia Torre Leverano 1997 ($7, Dionysos).

Michael Franz will be answering questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.