Culinary Arts

Learn About Primitivo: Wine, Grape, History, Characteristics, and Pairings

Written by MasterClass

Jun 11, 2019 • 3 min read

When you’re tired of the same old pinot noirs or cabernet sauvignons, try a juicy primitivo from the southern tip of Italy. Primitivo, the Italian name for zinfandel, has shed its past as an obscure blending grape in inexpensive wines, and it is now being made into distinctive, high-quality, varietal wines.

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What Is Primitivo?

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.

What Is the History of Primitivo?

Primitivo was brought across the Adriatic Sea to southern Italy from Croatia, where it originated, some time in the 1700s. The Croatian grape was called crljenak kaštelanski or tribidrag, but an Italian monk renamed the grape primitivo (from the Latin “early ripening”) because he noticed that it ripened before other grapes in his vineyard.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, primitivo was mainly used as a blending grape to bring alcohol and body to other Italian red wines. In the 1990s, the European government offered many grape growers in Italy, especially in the south, financial incentives to pull up their vines as a way to decrease the volume of low-quality wine being made in the EU. Growers were happy to pull up their primitivo bush vines, which were hard to harvest and didn’t produce much income.

DNA analysis from UC Davis in California in the late 1990s proved that the primitivo grape of Italy is genetically identical to the California zinfandel grape. Starting in 1999, Italian producers could legally label their primitivo wines as zinfandel, which allowed them to gain popularity as varietal wines in the export market. Plantings of primitivo grapes have increased by about 50% since their low point in the 1990s.

What Are the Characteristics of Primitivo?

Primitivo from Italy is made into full-bodied, moderately tannic red wines that are meant to be drunk within three to four years of the harvest. There are also some sweet dessert wines, which will be labeled dolce naturale. Sometimes primitivo is blended with other southern Italian grape varieties, but since the zinfandel connection was discovered, varietal wines have been more popular. Higher quality wines may be made from the grapes of old vines.

The main characteristics of primitivo wines are:

  • Fruit-driven, with notes of cherry, strawberry, blackberry, and raisin
  • Earthy and rustic
  • High in alcohol
  • Sometimes sweet

Where Kinds of Wines Are Made With Primitivo Grapes?

Primitivo is grown in the hot, dry Apulia region in the heel of Italy’s boot. The main areas are:

  • Primitivo di Manduria: The Apulian commune of Manduria has had a reputation for growing high quality primitivo for centuries. This DOC produces full-bodied, 100% primitivo wines that balance tannin with a touch of sweetness. The region has an especially warm climate that is favorable to grape ripening, so the wines have alcohol levels of at least 14%. The separate DOCG Dolce Naturale denotes sweet red wines from Manduria made from primitivo grapes that have been dried in the sun.
  • Gioia del Colle: This DOC near the city of Bari includes the vineyard with the first plantings of primitivo from Croatia. Gioia del Colle’s higher altitude and limestone soils result in elegant primitivo wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol than their Mandurian counterparts. Only 15 producers work in this tiny appellation, so there is a limited supply of these wines.
  • Primitivo del Salento: This IGT on the Salento peninsula covers a broader area than the DOCs. Good value, fruit-forward wines can be found here.

What’s the Difference Between Primitivo and Zinfandel?

While primitivo is only grown in Italy, the same grape, called zinfandel, has made a name for itself in the New World. Zinfandel, grown primarily in the California regions of Lodi, the Napa Valley, and the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, and in parts of New York state, is usually a lighter bodied wine than dense primitivo. Both can have a slight sweetness from ripe fruit, but primitivo is usually made in an earthier, more tannic style.

How Do You Pair Primitivo Wine?

Primitivo’s ripe fruit and full body make it a great partner with rich, meaty dishes. Try it with:

  • Braised lamb or goat
  • Grilled steak with balsamic glaze
  • Blood sausage
  • Eggplant parmesan

Learn more about wine tasting and pairing in James Suckling’s MasterClass.