Primitivo is back in vogue. After years of neglect, this black-skinned grape has risen to fame again thanks to recent DNA profiling which revealed the Italian grape and California’s zinfandel were the same.
Even more astonishing is the fact the grape actually originated – not from Italy or the USA – but from across the Adriatic sea in central Dalmatia in Croatia, where it is known as tribidrag.
Primitivo is a tricky grape to grow (named after ‘primaticcio’ due to its propensity to ripen early) and was used in Italy mainly as an alcoholic boost in blends with other grapes. Primitivo suffered badly in the EU vine-pull scheme in the 1990s when growers happily pulled out 10,000 hectares of this stubborn vine to replace them with easier-to-grow varieties.
Today there are now just over 7,000 hectares left and older vines are highly sought-after by winemakers.
So what does primitivo taste like? If you like your reds inky black, big, powerful and robust you might well enjoy it. It is not for the faint-hearted with its high level of sweetness and raisiny notes.
In comparison to Californian zinfandel, primitivo grown in Puglia tends to have a little more structure and earthiness. The best primitivos have a delicious jammy quality and a juicy wild berry flavour similar to a rich dense Australian shiraz from Barossa Valley – often with that characteristic bitter Italian twist to the finish.
The problem now is that recent popularity has meant that primitivo comes in various styles – and some of the cheap and cheerful sub-£6 Beaujolais-style versions are not representative of the grape. The cheapest we found is Aldi’s Venturer Primitivo at £4.99 which is an acceptable spicy barbecue quaffer, but not a typical example of the grape.
The best primitivo blockbusters should be served alongside grilled meats, rich lamb casseroles, spicy sausages and beefburgers.
Some of the better wines (but not all) have Primitivo di Manduria on the label, this refers to a special DOC in which only primitivo grapes can be used in the wine. Manduria is a city in Taranto province in the far south east of Puglia, where many of the best old vine plantations are found.
Primitivo Natale Verga 2014
Lighter in colour and body than others in the tasting; tasters enjoyed the dried fruit, earthy notes but felt this example from Brindisi and Taranto vineyards lacked class and elegance in comparison to others.
£6.99, Majestic Wine
Primitivo A Mano 2013
More approachable than many primitivos, this has light toasty notes and very ripe tannins – made by Californian-trained Mark Shannon.
£9.69, Valvona & Crolla; Drinkmonger, Edinburgh
Primitivo I Muri 2014 Vigneto del Salento - STAR BUY
They describe this as ‘proper primitivo’ – and it certainly is. More robust than you often find at this price level with delicious juicy brambly fruit and light spicy undertones, made by Filippo Baccalaro, who clearly knows how to tame the wild primitivo grape.
£7.95, The Wine Society; £9.50, Drinkmonger, Edinburgh
Primitivo ‘Talo’ 2013 San Marzano
Rich cherry aromas, spicy flavours with a delicious soft plummy mouthfeel – tasters thought this good value for its quality.
£10.98-£11.65, The Drink Shop; Strictly Wine
Imprint Primitivo Appassito 2013 - STAR BUY
Made by the A Mano team using dried grapes, this Amarone-style primitivo has wonderful dried fig and raisiny aromas. Deep, dark, unctuous, earthy and robust, with a light toastiness from one third matured in old oak.
£11.95, Valvona & Crolla; Drinkmonger, Edinburgh
Primitivo di Manduria Zolla 2013 Vigneti del Salento - STAR BUY
For those who like soft jammy juicy cherry-fruited reds, Filippo Baccalaro’s primitivo is deliciously smooth, velvet textured and so easy to drink. Eight months in French oak has softened and enhanced this primitivo. Its 14 per cent alcohol level seems so in balance with the rest of the wine.
£15.95, Vino Wine Shops, Edinburgh
Primitivo di Manduria ‘Anniversario 62’ Riserva 2012 San Marzano - STAR BUY
This premium primitivo from the very successful San Marzano co-operative stormed our tasting: a big powerful robust style with a spicy wild berry character and great elegance on the finish – packaged in a very heavy bottle – an ideal gift for anyone turning 62 this year.
£19.99-£25, Strictly Wine; All About Wine; The Drink Shop; Wine Trust 100
Old Vine Primitivo 2011 Morella
This is Aussie winemaker Lisa Gilbee’s rich intense brambly primitivo made from 70 year old vines. Very dense, serious and high in alcohol (16 per cent), but a beautifully pure refined well-made version of the grape. A super buy if it wasn’t for the hefty price tag. £34.95, Berry Bros & Rudd
• Join Rose’s Hidden Italian Gems wine & charcuterie tasting in Abode Hotel, Bath Street, Glasgow on 30 September, £42, www.rosemurraybrown.com