Why Primitivo is a must for any lovers of Italian Wine
Posted on 23 March 2021
Primitivo is a red grape variety grown principally in Puglia, way down in the “heel of the boot” in the South East of Italy. Alongside Negroamaro, they make up the real identity of Pugliese red wine.
It’s thought that the name comes from a priest in the 18th century noting that it ripened earlier than most other varieties in the region. It’s thought that it was called Primitivo from the Latin primitives, meaning “first to ripen”. The priest then established vineyards in Gioia del Colle, an area of Puglia that is famed for its top quality Primitivo to this day!
Primitivo is a dark-skinned grape that can produce deep-coloured, almost inky, wines with high levels of alcohol and tannin. If grown in large quantity without regard for quality, it can be difficult to make a wine that is pleasant to drink on its own. Grown in lower quantity and higher quality, on older bush vines, it can produce beautifully structured and intensely flavoured dark fruit and spicy wines. The consumer drinking them will love it, the grape grower straining their back with the manual labour of bush vines in the intense Pugliese sunshine…not as much!
It hasn’t always been very well known outside of Puglia. For decades many wine drinkers were drinking Primitivo without realizing it. Regional rules demanded Primitivo grapes were grown in such a way as to make very thick and alcoholic wines, making it a difficult wine on its own, but often very useful as a blending component. In blends, it added structure and fruit to some of Northern Italy’s most famous red wines that then found international fame on the export market. But the use of Primitivo in those blends, for wines such as Amarone, was often hushed up.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that Primitivo found any real fame as a varietal (single grape in the wine), and this was largely thanks to the American wine industry. American winemakers were making Zinfandel a world-famous red grape variety, making stunning red wines, and top-selling (albeit dubious quality) blush rosé. DNA analysis found that it was genetically identical to Puglia’s Primitivo, and so varietal Primitivo wine began to be prized, with grape growers in Puglia (for the first time with Primitivo) receiving higher prices for quality grapes.
Some of the best quality examples come from the most southerly and flat region of Puglia, Salento. IGT Salento is an Italian appellation that lets the consumer know that this Primitivo has met the standards of production and quality set out by the winemakers of Salento. The better quality Primitivo wines of Salento will carry this mark on the label and definitely ones to keep an eye out for. Also lookout for the IGT Puglia labels, usually from top quality Primitivo from outside of Salento.
Food pairings with Pugliese wine are a lot of fun, as Puglia is arguably one of Italy’s most fascinating “foodie” regions. Pugliese fayre such as spit-roasted lamb or stewed lentils with bacon is fabulous. Classic ragù or even arrabbiata pasta sauces are also in the mix as great pairings with these wines.
Primitivo to Try
Primitivo Puglia IGT by Caiaffa: £90.57 for a case of 6
Primitivo Puglia IGT Mezzogiorno: £70.87 for a case of 6