Primitivo is a red wine grape variety that is also known as zinfandel. It is the third-most planted grape in Puglia, in southern Italy. Primitivo makes wines that are big, jammy, and rustic, with high alcohol, chewy tannins, and a sweet finish.
Primitivo is also commonly known as Zinfandel. However Primitivo is found in Italy and Zinfandel is popular in California, USA. Primitivo and Zinfandel were never the original names of this grape. The grapes come from Croatia, where they are called “Tribidrag” and sometimes “Krlenak Cashtelanski”.
Although we take this information for granted in 2015, we did not know that Zinfandel and Primitivo were the same grapes until the 1960s. Furthermore, until 2001 we did not trace the roots of this grape to Tribidrag. That’s how Zinfandel and Primitivo separated and reopened as the same grapes.
What are Primitivo wines famous for?
The Primitivo de Italia turns into a full and moderately tanned red wine, which should be drunk within three to four years after the harvest. There are also several sweet dessert wines that will be labelled as dolce naturale. Sometimes Primitivo wines are blended with other varieties from southern Italy, but since the zinfandel link was discovered, varietal wines have become more popular. Better wines can be made from old grape varieties.
The main characteristics of Primitivo wines are:
– Fruit, with notes of cherries, strawberries, blackberries and raisins
– Earthy and rustic
– High level of alcohol
– Sometimes sweet
Where do Primitivo wines come from?
Primitivo wine is grown in the hot and dry region of Apulia, on the heel of an Italian shoe. The main areas:
Primitivo di Manduria
The Puglia community of Manduria has the reputation of growing Primitivo of high quality over the centuries. This DOC produces full-bodied, 100% Primitivo wines that balance the tannin with a touch of sweetness. The region has a particularly warm climate conducive to the maturation of grapes, so the alcohol level in wines is at least 14%. A separate Dolce Naturale DOCG means sweet red wines from Manduria, made from Primitivo sun-dried grapes.
Gioia del Colle
This DOC near Bari includes the first Primitivo vineyard in Croatia. Gioia del Colle’s high altitude and calcareous soils allow to create elegant Primitivo wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol content than its Manduran counterparts. Only 15 producers work with this small name, so the supply of these wines is limited.
Primitivo del Salento
This IGT in the Salento peninsula covers a wider area than the DOC. Good value, fruit wines can be found here.
The history of Primitivo
The Primitivo was probably introduced in Puglia in the middle of the 18th century and today is one of the most famous and typical varieties in the region. It is said that Don Francesco Filippo Indelicati identified the variety in the local vineyards and named it Primitivo due to the early ripening of its grapes. He planted the first vineyard in the district of Li Ponti, in the Terzi district, where there is now a commemorative plaque to celebrate the event.
In the 18th century, a priest named Don Francesco Filippo Indellikati liked wine. He brought grapes from Croatia, including from Tribidrag, and planted them in Liponti, Italy. He noticed that the grapes from Tribidrag seemed to ripen before any other grape, so he started calling it Primitivo (Translation: first) and the name got stuck. As the grapes were so easy to deal with the surrounding climate, Primitivo took off like a forest fire, all over Puglia, Italy, becoming the most common grape variety in the region.
Meanwhile, Tribidrag arrived in Boston in 1829 from Vienna, where it was brought by the Habsburg monarchy that ruled Croatia at the time. In Boston it was given to a gardener named George Gibbs, and was used as table grapes and called Zenfendal, a piece about his Hungarian name tzinifándli. Gibbs moved to California after the gold rush of 1850, taking with him Zenfendal’s vineyards. In 1857 they were planted and used for the first time for winemaking in North America at the Oak Knoll Vineyard in northern Napa. The wine was so well received that Zinfandel’s production increased in almost one night. By the 1890s, it had evolved from table grapes to the most common wine in America.
Italy and the USA knew little about the Primitivo and Zinfandel are not unique and are not their own grape varieties.