Rethinking Primitivo

The iron-rich calcareous soils of Goia del Colle planted with vines of Primitivo.
The iron-rich calcareous soils of Goia del Colle planted with vines of Primitivo.

Oh, Primitivo, I’m sorry! I should never have doubted you and your potential.

Continuing on the theme of “breaking stereotypes”, allow me to share what I discovered in Apulia recently: there is Primitivo being made there that can easily compete with the great Zinfandel wines of California. Wines with freshness (!) and elegance (!!), fruit tannin and balance. With structure and complexity.

And where in Apulia are these glorious wines coming from?From a lesser-known DOC called Gioia del Colle, located farther north and at a higher elevation than famous Manduria or Salento, both of which produce the best-known and most easily-found Primitivo-based wines.

Although there is more Negro Amaro planted, Primitivo is easily Apulia’s most famous grape variety – even more so after having been established as identical to California’s beloved Zinfandel and Croatia’s Tribidrag – and, it turns out, Croatia is where the grape originally comes from, even if, these days, it is far more common and more famous in California or Italy.

Thanks in large part to the EU’s vine-pull schemes, which were aimed at trying to drain some of the “lake” of cheap, uneconomic and unneeded wines in Europe, total hectares of Primitivo found in Italy declined sharply between 1990 and 2000. Tragically, much of what was pulled out in Puglia were ancient vines the likes of which will take generations to replace – if they ever can be.

As the grape has come into vogue in its own right, instead of simply beefing up weaker wines from elsewhere or playing a part in a blend, plantings are on the rise again.

Some of Primitivo’s positive qualities are also its downfall. Primitivo vines can produce huge quantities of grapes, all reaching high levels of sugar ripeness – and high potential alcohol – under the Mediterranean sun. This characteristic is augmented in two ways:

  1. the grapes are early ripeners – a fact reflected in the very name of the grape, Primitivo, which originates with Latin, where it quite literally means “early-ripening”. This means there is plenty of time for the grapes to accumulate sugar, if they are left to hang.
  2. there is a tendency among some producers (who will tell you it is “traditional”) to wait until all of the berries in the bunch are quite ripe before they pick. Primitivo does not ripen all at the same time, however, so by the time the last berries are fully ripe, the other berries are already withering, meaning sugar levels and concentration are very high, acids – already low – are even lower. The wine’s balance goes out the window. No wonder there is a strong tradition for sweet wines made from late-harvest Primitivo.

So What is the Stereotype?

There are two main stereotypes for Italian wines made from this grape:

#1 Cheap and Cheerful

Productive, alcoholic and endowed with colour, Primitivo has long embodied the simple charms of the south – and the south’s bad side.

That’s right, Primitivo – alone or in blends – is responsible for lakes of fruity, yet insipid, cheap southern Italian reds (and rosato) populating the bottom shelves of supermarkets and hard discounters all over the world, often with levels of residual sugar that stretch the borders of what a “dry” wine can be. In this form it is easy to drink and immediately forget, and offers little in the way of interest, elegance or complexity.

#2 Wooded and Dense

But there are those who would use Primitivo to make “great” wines, hunting for high scores from critics. The usual method? Increased concentration and plenty of new wood – because that’s what a “great” wine needs, apparently. Highly extracted, dense wines with flavour and tannin from new oak barrels are important tools in the quest for high scores.

If I may be so bold: these are not “great” Primitivo wines. Not by a long shot. These are nothing more than jars of jam surrounded by a wooden stockade. They might make an impression, but they are no fun to drink.

But What are the Great Wines?

To me, the greatest wines offer elegance, great fruit, spicy complexity, tannin and freshness. The fruit should not be overripe and jammy, the tannins should be primarily from the grapes and not from wood. They should be delicious, yes, but they should be fun to drink! You should want more than one glass – possibly more than one bottle.

Up until two weeks ago, I had never had a Primitivo that met all those criteria. Now I have had several, and I’m beside myself with glee.

Who to Look For

Giovanni Aiello

Here is a young man from the region who first studied winemaking in the Veneto before going abroad to Australia and California to learn “modern” winemaking style from the best. Then he came back to his roots to make wine in the family tradition, while applying what he had learned at home and abroad. He’s been back in Apulia making wine for just a few years.

What was the result? Superb wines of character and style. He makes two whites, a sparkling wine, a rosato and a red. All of his wines are unbelievably compelling, but his 2017 Chakra Rosso (100% Primitivo) was shockingly delicious, and wasn’t heavy in the slightest. Mind. Blown. He also brought along magnums of his 2016 Chakra Rosso, which was very different in flavour profile, but no less fascinating.

The Wines

Chakra Rosso 2017

Anise and ripe cherry with a dash of cinnamon. Ripe, bright and full, a bit chewy from the tannin – but the wine had only barely been filled. This was a Primitivo of the purest fruit, without a hint of jam and where the alcohol – a relatively restrained 14.5% abv – was completely under control.

Magnum bottle and glass of 2016 Chakra Rosso from Giovanni Aiello - 100% Primitivo
Chakra Rosso fro Gioavanni Aiello – Handmade labels and handmade wine.

Chakra Rosso 2016

With a year of bottle age, but poured from a Magnum bottle, so the development was slower. It needed a bit more air to temper the slight rasp of dried herbs and tobacco. Bright red fruit jumps out on the palate and there is plenty of freshness leading to fine tannins. Beautiful stuff with an animal rawness.

Pasquale Petrera (Fatalone)

The word “revelation” is bandied about almost as often, and almost as inappropriately, as “revolution” when it comes to marketers trying to sell something. But trying Pasquale’s 2016 Primitivo “Classico” and 2015 Primitivo “Riserva” at the estate was, for me, a revelation. I’d already been awakened to the possibilities of Primitivo by Giovanni Aiello the day before and Cantina Angiuli Donato a day before that. But Pasquale’s wines were a giant step farther along the freshness spectrum. These were beautifully ripe, fruity wines with vivid, almost spritzy acidity – unheard of from a Primitivo. I was immediately enchanted.

After returning home, I tracked Pasquale’s wines down at his only German distributor – and they had the Classico  in the 2015, as well as the Riserva in 2015 and 2013. I immediately bought them to see how the two 2015s compared directly, and to see how that 2013 was after a couple more years of age. Spoiler alert: it was extraordinary.

The Wines:

Classico 2016

This wine had better acidity than any Primitivo I’d ever had – until I tried the 2013 Riserva. Mouth-watering red fruit, cloves and the barest hint of cedar. The wine was so appetising I must have poured it again for myself at least four times  – full of sweet spices and cherry and plum intensity. Tannins were fine and ripe despite a challenging year for the DOC. No Riserva was made in 2016, so the Classico spent a little time in wood, which, in years where a Riserva is made, is not the case.

Riserva 2015

A dramatic comparison to the “Classic”, since it is only made in the best years and the wine sees more wood. Less acidity, but still plenty – and a depth of spice and fruit that was a fine contrast with the 2016 Classico, with its unabashed red and black fruit buffet. Elegant, long and regal. I was blown away.

Fatalone 2015 Riserva and Classico, with a glass
The 2015 vintage of the Fatalone Riserva and Classico

Classico 2015

I found this wine back home and bought it – together with a bottle of the 2015 Riserva – so I could see how the wines compared from the same vintage: one with wood, the other without. It was smooth, even creamy and with superb freshness, ripe, fine tannin and replete with blackberry and plum, red cherry and anise. A lovely, delicious wine that is a pleasure at table.

Riserva 2013

And now, the final reveal: this is probably the best, most enjoyable Primitivo I’ve had the pleasure of trying. Superb freshness, reminiscent of the 2016 Classico, but with layers of red and black fruit. Integration of tannin, acidity and alcohol is flawless, the wine is in fantastic balance. Youthful without being simple. The juiciest, most delightful, most “pour another glass or two” Primitivo I’ve had the opportunity to taste. Find it. Buy it. Bathe in it.

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