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“Li Filitti” Primitivo di Manduria Riserva

“Li Filitti” Riserva 2012 – Primitivo di Manduria DOP  – Masca del Tacco

Ah, Primitivo! Found in many parts of the south of Italy, it is most at home in Puglia – or, at least, that’s where most of the vines are planted. This grape is starting to make some serious inroads into worldwide markets, although the Italian south remains a bit less marketing-savvy, the wines a bit less-known than many other, more northern parts of the country.

Li Filitti 2012
Love me some Primitivo.

The ascending fortunes of this oft-underestimated variety have certainly been boosted by its identification with California’s legendary Zinfandel. Yes, the two varieties are genetically the same, as proven through DNA analysis at California’s own Davis University in 1994. What’s more, the vine’s original homeland is actually Croatia, where the variety is known as Tribidrag. References to this vine in Croatia go back a long, long time.

Origins aside, there are, nevertheless, significant differences in style depending where you are – not all of which are dependent on winemaking. Vines are highly susceptible to mutation and adapt to their environment swiftly, characteristics such as bunch and berry size very quickly diverge.

Li Filitti 2012
Back label info.

I picked up this bottle from an online retailer as part of a mixed case of wines that had received at least 95 points from well-known and respected wine critics. Since first trying Primitivo, years ago, I have been a fan, so I was optimistic from the outset that this wine would be an enjoyable drink. To be fair, I was a little bit sceptical as well; the zone is unquestionably the best for Primitivo, but there are many examples coming from misguidedly ambitious producers there who use too much new wood in an effort to give their wines an aura of “greatness” that they seem to feel can only be achieved with the famous barrique. Wood is a sensitive topic.

On to the wine! First the technical and objective bits:

Primitivo di Manduria DOP is an excellent zone for the variety. Limestone soils, often with ancient bush vines, the wines are usually full of ripe berry fruit and spice. The climate is hot and dry, so there is a tendency to overripeness if the vineyards are not carefully mangaged. The bunches also ripen unevenly, so this problem can be exacerbated. Likewise, there is not usually a whole lot of acidity.

Like all wines from this DOP, this one is made with 100% Primitivo. Hand-harvested, in this case. It fermented for twenty days on the skins with temperature controls and spent at least 12 months in French barriques…almost certainly 100% new wood, though I could find no information concerning that.

As a Riserva, a Primitivo di Manduria must age for 24 months, nine of which in wood, before it can be released. It must have at least 14% alcohol, 5 g/L acidity, and a maximum 18 g/L residual sugar. Which is a lot of sugar, to be honest….but that is usually for the sweeter style of this wine.

As a side note, Primitivo has a much longer history and tradition as either a blending partner to lend body to thinner wines, or as a sweet wine. There is an elevated appellation – a DOCG  – for the sweet version, which tells you something.

Founded in 2010 in Erchie by Armando and Felice Mergè, the Masca del Tacco estate has its roots with the local cooperative, going back to 1949. This important date is found on the bottle. 

The Tasting Note

Li Filitti 2012 in glass

It is deep, dense ruby, nearly opaque and with barely any rim.

Loads of blackberry and plum in the nose, with plenty of vanilla and clove, even a bit of chocolate and tobacco. Rich with fruit and heavy on the wood character. Reminds me a little bit of mulled wine, sans citrus.

The palate is enormously dense, fruit extract is very high, with overripe black plum and blackberry. Coffee and chocolate compete with cedar, cloves and vanilla for attention. There is not a lot of freshness, but the wine is definitely dry. Tannins are quite heavy, but they feel like they were contributed solely by the wood, fruit tannin is tough to locate….and the tannins are not yet well-integrated.

The wine IS of very good quality, but I struggle to admit it. The quality of the fruit is excellent and I think the vineyard parcel – Li Filitti – shows superb class. The finish is long. But what has happened to this wine?

Now begins the, ahem, less objective part…

The rant

This wine is a barrique monster, a wooden juggernaut, a medieval siege weapon. Subtlety is not part of the deal. It has enormous fruit concentration, length, tannin (from the wood), but is lacking completely in freshness – particularly surprising since, according to the DOC rules, there MUST be at least 5g/L of acidity. The wood character is so dominant that I cannot imagine trying to pair this with most dishes. After swallowing there is an oily cedar slick on the tongue and the palate. It is so dense that I literally shuddered as I finished my glass of it on the first evening. The fact that one well-known German online retailer actually recommends it with fish is so ludicrous that I laughed out loud when I read it! In the spirit of fair play, I drank my last glass of it on the third day after having opened it – with some lovely baked fish. It was an awful partner.

The third day. I had it open that long to try to get past the wood, to see if it would improve. Because it really has the potential, if it weren’t for the heavy coat of makeup, to be a beautiful wine.

I do not blame the winemakers for this. Yes, of course they could have used less wood – goodness knows I would have preferred that. But I expect they want to make money on their wine. They are filling a perceived need on the market. We all see wines like this regularly.

But what do the critics think?

97 points from Luca Maroni! “Two Glasses” from Gambero Rosso! Gold from the Berliner Wine Trophy! I should have been nearly breathless just thinking about the quality that this wine must have before I had even pulled the cork. It’s a scandal that a lowly peon such as myself could even procure such a bottle.

This kind of wine absolutely makes an impression in tastings. It destroys anything with less body, less wood, less concentration. And it was absolutely no fun to drink. What a pity.

The one-line takeaway:

If you love intense, fruit-flavoured wood, buy this wine.

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