Primitivo wine, a taste of Puglia

Chances are you have heard of Zinfandel – a black-skinned wine grape grown in California. But have you heard of its Italian cousin Primitivo? Genetically equivalent to the Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag grapes that were brought to the United States in the 1800s, Primitivo is the version that is grown in Puglia, better known as the heel of the boot that makes up Italy’s geography.

Primitivo wine gets its name from its early ripening time as compared with other varietals. The prefix primi in Italian means first, and the story goes that this grape was chosen specifically because it ripened more quickly than some of the others. This is linked to the Spanish Tempranillo wine, also named for its early ripening time. The Primitivo grape’s lineage goes all the way back to the ancient Phoenicians, the settlers of the Puglia region. Rumor even has it that Primitivo is the wine that was served at the last supper! We will never know if this is true or not, but a visit to Puglia can be inspiring, and certainly enhanced with a nice glass of Primitivo.

While traditionally served as a table wine for the agrarian workers in the Puglia region, new production techniques and sophisticated winery management have improved the quality of the wine. Primitivo wine tends to be well-structured, dark in color, concentrated, with a high alcohol content. The nose tends to hold traces of blackberries, pepper, and dark, ruby fruits. The wine is also generally quite cheap, as it is less well known than some of the more famous Italian wines, and the production quantity is so high.

The story of Primitivo begins with a certain don Filippo Indelicati, who chose the grape for the winery Gioia del Colle in Bari. In 1879 Primitivo was mentioned: “Il Primitivo forma la coltura esclusiva di Gioia del Colle; se ne fa vino, da solo, di ottimo gusto ed alquanto ricercato” – Primitivo forms the exclusive culture of the Gioia del Colle; it makes wine, alone, with an excellent taste that is sought after. It was said that Primitvo suffered the heat, and was not very resistant to drought, but that its brief life on the vine gave it a delicacy and resistance to disease that pervaded other types of vines.

Primitivo di Manduria is produced as a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). In order to qualify for the classification, the wine must be 85% Primitivo, and 15% black grapes cultivated in Brindisi or Taranto. It must be 13.5% alcohol by volume, and is characteristically an intense red color, which gets darker with gaining. The same wine can be labeled a reserve if it is at least 14% alcohol by volume. The maximum yield of the grape in Primitivo di Manduria DOC should not be above 70%. Any grapes destined for the production of Primitivo di Manduria DOC should go through a natural process of appassimento to achieve at least 13% alcohol by volume, and 13.5% for the reserve wine. The wine should be aged for around 6 months and not sent to the market before March 31 of the year following the grape harvest. The reserve Primitivo must be aged for 24 months, at least 9 of which in wooden barrels. The year of production is necessary for the DOC labels.

A robust wine, Primitivo goes well with red meat, pork, or lamb dishes, either roasted in the oven or served in a thick stew. It is generally a great value, again due to the high production. The high alcohol content also makes this wine a great choice for a cold night in – a little bit will go a long way! Put on some taranta music (traditional to Puglia) and slice up some burrata with pomodorini secchi and enjoy an evening like you were in Puglia!