Primitivo is a variety of red grape grown across Puglia, which has found its ideal habitat in two areas above all others: the red soils of Taranto Province where it is used to make “Primitivo di Manduria” Doc and “Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale” Docg, and among the hills of Gioia del Colle and the Bari Province Murgia uplands.
At present Primitivo is grown on about 11,000 hectares of land in Puglia. This has increased constantly in the last ten years, with a rise of 40% after a period which saw massive reductions caused by to EU incentives to uproot vines; in some cases this led to the destruction of outstanding centuries-old vineyards. Luckily, in the two most suitable areas for this variety, several very old and exceptionally good vineyards have survived, and these are mostly cultivated using the traditional alberello vine-training method.
This variety owes its name to its early ripening; Primitivo comes from the Latin “primativus” and Old Italian “primaticcio” (both meaning “first to ripen” or “early ripening”).
All the growth stages of this variety from flowering to colour change are early, and it is one of the first grape varieties to be harvested in Italy: in Puglia, its main area in Italy, this means August.
In the second half of the eighteenth century it was a monk from Gioia del Colle with a passion for botany, Filippo Francesco Indellicati, who was the first to give the variety its Latin-derived name connected with its early ripening. Before this the variety was known by other names, such as Zagarese (presumably referring to Zagreb in Croatia), and other varieties in Italy had similar names.
This vine arrived at Manduria in particular in 1881, when the Countess Sabini di Altamura brought some cuttings from Gioia del Colle as part of her dowry when she married nobleman Tommaso Schiavoni Tafuri. His cousin, Menotti Schiavoni, began growing Primitivo on the dunes at Campomarino, a coastal town near Manduria, and soon obtained a full-bodied wine. The first label is still carefully preserved; it bears the date 1891 and the denomination “Campo Marino”. From 1920 onwards Primitivo expanded enormously from Manduria to its surrounding area and across the entire Province of Taranto, until it became a kind of monoculture and one of the mainstays of the local economy. At this time the vine also spread to the Salento and was taken by Count Falco to Mondragone, in the province of Caserta, the same area where the renowned Falernian was produced in Roman times.
Until just a few decades ago, no one would have imagined that there was a close relationship between Primitivo, Zinfandel and Crljenak Kastelanskj (or Plavina), an obscure vine surviving now only in a few examples on the Dalmatian coast and some of its islands, but this has now been proved by genetic analysis.
The relationship between Primitivo and Californian Zinfandel was discovered practically by chance. In 1967 phytopathologist Austin Goheen of Davis University in California visited his Bari University colleague Giovanni P. Martelli. When Goheen tried a Primitivo wine he noticed a striking similarity with Zinfandel, a variety which was quite familiar to him. This paved the way for a series of studies, culminating in 1994 when it was demonstrated that the two varieties were genetically identical, thanks to research by Carole Meredith, one of the most active grape genetecists and professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. In 2001 it was demonstrated that Primitivo is genetically identical also to the Croatian variety Crljenak Kastelanski; this variety is also a parent of Plavac Mali, with which it shares certain genomes.
If it is likely that Primitivo arrived in Puglia from the other side of the Adriatic, we do not know if this happened thousands of years ago, with the migrations of the Illyrians or Ancient Greeks, or even – as some studies maintain - in the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries with groups of Slavs and Greek-Albanians (the so-called “schiavoni”) who fled to Puglia to escape persecution by the Ottoman Turks. Renowned academics once thought that Primitivo might derive from a degenerated Pinot nero from Burgundy, from the Cesanese variety of Lazio or from the Piedmontese Dolcetto, but these theories have been disproved.
Vine and wine characteristics
The Primitivo vine is averagely vigorous and matures early, giving low-medium yields. It suffers drought, spring frosts, flower abortion and high temperatures.
In areas where it has long been cultivated, vines are still trained as the traditional alberello, but it has more recently adapted well to trellis systems like Guyot or cordon training. The latter is most similar to alberello training and ensures more homogeneous fruit ripening.
Different clones of Primitivo exist, deriving from adaptations and mutations. In the vast territory of Manduria it grows on red soils, on volcanic and calcareous soils, on black soils derived from alluvial deposits and even on sand near the sea. In each of these areas the vine has a different shape, structure and development process.
The typical grape cluster is small and elongated, loose with round berries. The skin is delicate and quite thin, and for this reason it is sensitive to humidity and moulds. It is not a productive vine, and in the best Dop growing areas its average yield is constantly below the 9,000 kg of grapes per hectare permitted by the regulations.
Its most problematic characteristic is its tendency to over-ripen very rapidly: sometimes a delay of just a few days in harvesting will lead to shrivelled grapes with a rapid loss of acidity and fresh flavours.
Another unusual characteristic is that it produces “racemes”. Alongside very few other grape varieties, if Primitvo tips are pruned in spring the secondary shoots – known as “femminelle”- will develop an abundance of small rounded clusters. These “racemes” ripen approximately 20/30 days after the main grapes are harvested. This means that in Primitivo vineyards it is possible to have two separate harvests: the first in August to mid-September and the second from the end of September to early October.
The grapes themselves contain plentiful anthocyanins, although the high levels of unstable anthocyanins and the relatively low concentration of malvidin make the colour of Primitivo wines less stable this tends over time to take on duller orange tones.
At present Primitivo grapes are used in five Puglian Dop wines: Gioia del Colle, Gravina, Primitivo di Manduria, Lizzano, Terra d'Otranto, and in the Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale Docg.
Primitivo is a vine which can provide very sugar concentrations and levels, and also has the capacity to transform much of its sugar content into alcohol, so that it is not unusual to find Primitivo wines with 16/17° and even 18° degrees. On the other hand, the “racemes” have more “normal” alcohol levels but higher levels of acidity, and are traditionally used to correct vintages which are not well-balanced.
Primitivo has been greatly helped by the introduction of cold soaking techniques. When it was sold from the wood in the past, its high alcohol level was appreciated, but today its aromatic flavours make it popular; the wine is always very pleasantly fruity with hints of cherry. Its cherry-scented bouquet often contains sour and black cherry and sometimes even raspberry. Some types of soil will give it a spiciness containing pepper and liquorice as well as hints of Mediterranean vegetation.
Aging in oak casks helps Primitivo to achieve a stable colour, and above all it softens the excessive tannins which sometimes emerge in a young wine.