Primitivo is a dark-skinned grape variety used in certain inky, tannic wines from the Puglia region of deepest southern Italy. It is perhaps better known under its American synonym Zinfandel, which has become one of the most widely planted Vitis vinifera vines in the western United States.
It is likely that the rise of the variety in the United States rescued Primitivo from Puglian obscurity. Its popularity is only increasing, particularly through DOCs such as Primitivo di Manduria and its naturally sweet variant Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale – Puglia's very first DOCG.
It is thought that Primitivo was brought to the vineyards of southern Italy from the Primorska Hrvatska region of Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kasteljanski. It is likely it was in this form, and from this origin, that the variety arrived in America, although it was only in the 1990s that the Zinfandel-Primitivo-Crljenak link was confirmed.
Primitivo translates roughly as 'early one', and it is hard to miss the link here with Tempranillo, which means the same thing in Spanish. English speakers might infer the grape was in some way 'primitive', perhaps less refined than other grape varieties and the robust, almost aggressive character of much Primitivo might support this idea – even in Puglia the wine is known as Mirr Test, meaning 'hard wine'. However, the Primitivo name is thought to be a reference to the variety's early ripening nature, although it is also possible that it was named in reference to the uneven way Primitivo berries ripen; it is not unusual to see plump, fully ripened berries clustered alongside hard, green 'grapeshot'.
A classic Primitivo wine is high in both alcohol and tannins, intensely flavored and deeply colored. In Manduria, the fortified liquoroso variants often reach an ABV of 18%, which is dulled to 14% in table wines. A certain bitterness is often found in Primitivo which, combined with its mouth-puckering tannins, means that it needs a few years in either bottle or barrel. This faint bitterness is a trait that characterizes many Italian wines, and a quality that is being used to mark Primitivo as a truly Italian grape, quite distinct from its alter ego across the Atlantic.
Synonyms include: Zinfandel, Crljenak Kasteljanski.
Food matches include:
Europe: Baked eggplant lasagne (parmigiana melanzane); Puglian spit-roasted lamb
Asia: Beetroot curry (thel-dala) (red and rosé)
Americas: East Texas-style barbecue; Chilean stewed lentils with bacon (lentejas con tocino)
Australasia/Oceania: Rosemary-crusted roasted lamb with redcurrant jelly