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 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.
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.