Primitivo, the king of Puglia

 

Marco Roveda, CEO of La Bollina

 

Once a blending grape variety used to strengthen high-end reds from Northern Italy and abroad, nowadays Primitivo has become a stand-alone wine. And what a wine! Modern technologies introduced both in the vineyards and the cellar have shown the great potential of Primitivo, improving consumer’s perception of it and turning it into a prestigious wine, highly appreciated in Northern European countries and considered as the symbol of the Southern Italian renaissance.

 

More than any other grape, Primitivo illustrates how the Southern Italian wine scene in general – and Puglia in particular – has developed over the last few years. “The identity of Primitivo has changed, as have people from Puglia” reckons Adriano Pasculli de Angelis, director of the Consorzio Primitivo di Manduria. “It has gone from being massive and plain to a complex, Mediterranean, palate-enveloping wine”. It comes as no surprise that Puglia has become an increasingly popular wine tourism destination, thanks to Salento’s stunning beaches and luxury countryside resorts, often fashioned from restored old farm houses known as masseria. The young generations are now studying economics and tourism management in other parts of Italy and then coming back to run the family businesses. Amedeo Pagano of Masseria Bagnara in Lizzano is one of them: he studied in Parma and then came back to run the resort, also creating the wine list for the restaurant which includes well-known international brands as well as fine local wines. This would not have been possible without a switch towards quality-oriented production.

 

New-found awareness

“More than the personality of Primitivo itself, what has changed is the producers’ attitudes towards it because they are now aware of the great potential of the grape” claims Francesco Cavallo, chairman of the Cantine San Marzano, a co-operative which brings together 1,000 grape growers and covers 1,500 hectares. Greater attention in the vineyard and better technologies in the cellar have contributed to improving Primitivo’s average quality, thus allowing a fundamental switch from Primitivo as a bulk wine for blends to Primitivo as a fine wine serving as an ambassador for its native land. Alessandra Quarta of Claudio Quarta winery believes Primitivo illustrates how producers in Puglia have been able to step away from the market’s view of it as a bulk wine and have instead created a new scenario for it. “Primitivo is able to mix tradition and modern tastes, along with a high degree of enjoyability and ageing potential, a combination which is not easy to find in other Italian grapes” explains Mirko Sciutto, in charge of marketing at La Bollina. “The changes have helped raise the quality, improving average perceptions and making the product recognizable” he sums up.

 

 

Francesco Cavallo, chairman of the Cantine San Marzano

 

From amateur production to professional winemaking

An increase in vineyard acreage, along with mechanized vineyard management have forced producers to abandon the old head-trained bush system known as alberello in favour of modern guyot or pruned-spur cordon-trained vines. “Once it was common to intersperse alberello-trained vines with fruit trees and vegetable gardens to provide the family with all they needed” explains Elena Ciurletti, in charge of marketing at Masseria Borgo dei Trulli located in Maruggio, in the heart of the Primitivo di Manduria production area. When in 2016 Alessandro Michelon took over the Masseria Borgo dei Trulli estate, he had to make a choice. “There is no production logic behind the alberello-trained vines so pruning and harvesting have to be done by hand. But the fruit is great” reveals Elena Ciurletti. So they decided to keep the alberello-trained vines for the production of high-end labels and plant some new vineyards suitable for mechanization for the rest of production. Alessandro Michelon is not the only one to have made this decision. Sessantanni Primitivo di Manduria Dop by Cantine San Marzano is a wine produced from alberello-trained vines which are over 60 years old, with grapes for other labels from mechanized vineyards kept separate. Old Vine Primitivo is the label created by the Morella winery, located in Manduria, to enhance the estate’s 100% Primitivo wine from bush vines, which in this case are 75 years old.

 

The issue of ripeness

Modern devices have provided a better understanding of grape ripening, thus keeping the production of sugar – and therefore alcohol – under control and at the same time helping to preserve acidity. Not an easy task at all, made even more difficult by climate change and water shortages. “Investments in the cellar have proven to be a turning point”, reveals Pirro Varrone of the eponymous winery which he runs together with his wife Maria Antonietta Occhinero. This has paved the way for temperature-controlled fermentation, which results in fresher and more balanced wines. Long gone are the days when Primitivo was referred to solely as “plum-jam wine”. There are still some producers such as Nicola Chiaromonte who offer highly-extracted and, in his case, well-shaped interpretations of the variety. But many growers have discovered how Primitivo grapes can produce elegant products too and are now focusing on drinkability and complexity rather than opulence. Producers such as Gianfranco Fino with his legendary ES Primitivo di Manduria Dop have paved the way for proper consideration amongst the greatest Italian wines, finally casting light on a region until then dismissed.

 

Primitivo and Zinfandel: are they synonymous?

For many, Primitivo from Puglia and Zinfandel from California are synonyms. In fact, Primitivo and Zinfandel are both clones of a Croatian grape called Crljenak. Despite being genetically very similar, they are in fact not the same variety. The differences are subtle and consist mainly of Primitivo ripening a little bit earlier than Zinfandel. Nevertheless, US labeling law does not allow the two names to be used interchangeably, whereas in Europe it is possible to do so. For example, at Rocca Vini they use the appellation Primitivo di Manduria for their top label made with a terroir-driven approach and aged for 12 months in oak, whereas they have branded their Primitivo del Salento as Zinfandel Salento. “Some of our Northern European customers have asked that we use the name Zinfandel” admits Emanuele Rocca, in charge of exports at Rocca Vini. “It does not have any additional appeal compared with Primitivo, whose name reflects its Italian origin”.

 

Primitivo di Manduria Dop

In Puglia there are 86,000 hectares under vine. Red grapes represent three quarters of production, with Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Primitivo and Negroamaro being the most cultivated varieties. Primitivo is grown mainly in Salento – as the “heel” of the Italian “boot” is referred to – which encompasses the provinces of Lecce, Brindisi and Taranto. There are over 11,000 hectares of Primitivo in the region but only 3,140 are aimed at making Primitivo di Manduria, produced in 18 municipalities near Taranto and Brindisi. Along with 17 million bottles of Primitivo di Manduria Dop and 1.5 million bottles of Primitivo di Manduria Riserva Dop, they also produce a much smaller amount of Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale Docg dessert wine. Primitivo di Manduria has to be made from at least 85% Primitivo grapes. Other non aromatic red grapes can be added, but more and more wineries have at least one label made from 100% Primitivo. “Primitivo is now a highly enjoyable wine with a smooth palate, including when it is made from 100% Primitivo grapes” claims Emanuele Rocca, pointing to approval for the grape from foreign markets. Sour cherry and ripe stone fruit aromas backed up by sweet spicy notes, silky tannins and a good amount of freshness counterbalancing the minimum 13.5% alcohol content required, is what a nice Primitivo di Manduria will taste like.

 

 

Maria Antonietta Occhinero who runs the Pirro Varrone winery with her husband in Manduria

 

Primitivo del Salento Igp

Primitivo grapes are used in many appellations, not only in Puglia but also in Campania, Basilicata and Abruzzi, but the two main representatives are Primitivo di Manduria Dop and Primitivo del Salento Igp. Primitivo del Salento can be produced in all the Salento area. Its specifications allow for a higher yield per hectare, almost twice as much as Primitivo di Manduria, namely 17 tons versus 9. This results in a less powerful, easy to drink wine, whose aromas are more reminiscent of fresh berries than jam, as is the case for I Balzi Primitivo Salento Igp by the Natale Verga winery. “Primitivo di Manduria has a higher amount of alcohol and is a bigger wine, with a nutty and spicy finish, as you can sense in our Imperio LXXIV, Byzantinum and Diodoro. Primitivo del Salento, on the other hand, is a more fruit-driven product with berry and cherry aromas and smoother tannins, as epitomized by our Strabone” explains Giorgio Tinazzi who runs Tenuta Feudo Croce in Grottaglie and Cantine San Giorgio in San Giorgio Jonico with his father Gian Andrea and sister Francesca. “Primitivo del Salento is an everyday red wine offering great value for money while Primitivo di Manduria is chosen mainly for consumption during the holiday season and for special celebrations” points out Emanuele Rocca.

 

A wine for ageing

Another important difference regards ageing. Whereas Primitivo del Salento is usually released into the market quite early, Primitivo di Manduria tends to age longer. “Many wineries design their wines for lengthy ageing and for wine collectors. Here, at Tenute Emèra, we produce two Primitivo di Manduria. Anima di Primitivo ages shortly in oak, whereas Oro di Emèra ages for longer in small French oak barrels” explains Alessandra Quarta. Primitivo di Manduria Riserva follows exactly the same tack, requiring 14% alcohol and at least 24 months’ ageing, 9 in oak. Anniversario 62 is Cantine San Marzano’s Primitivo di Manduria Riserva, made with grapes from alberello-trained vines and aged in small French and American oak barriques for a year and a half. Francesco Cavallo describes it as “ruby red, with rich aromas of plum, cherry jam and tobacco, intense on the palate with velvety tannins and a finish recalling cocoa, coffee and vanilla. Anniversario 62 is elegant with great ageing potential, the perfect wine to celebrate the year 1962 when the winery was established”. Oak ageing is being chosen for both aromatic and ageing reasons, including the standard, non-Riserva Primitivo di Manduria as is the case for Tavros by La Bollina.

 

Primitivo, Puglia’s Amarone

Although in the past some have compared Primitivo to Amarone for its ripe fruit aromas, intense body and pleasant characters, there are reasons now to move on from the comparison. First of all, the two production systems are completely different, except for a few cases such as Borgodei Trulli’s Saracena where the decision has been made to produce a more intense version of Primitivo del Salento, air-drying the grapes for a fortnight in small boxes. Secondly, Primitivo has become so popular that the comparison with the other red from Northern Italy is no longer required. Markets are now well aware of the product and there are wineries such as Pirro Varrone that export 90% of their production. “Before the 1990s we traded only with Italian buyers” says Emanuele Rocca. “In the last few years, Puglian viticulture and technology have been able to reach such a high level that they meet the requirements of even the most demanding foreign markets” claims Natale Verga of the eponymous winery. Nowadays, Primitivo’s main markets are Central and Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, along with the US, particularly along the coasts. Traditional markets such as Russia and Brazil have been pushed to the sidelines by China which is increasingly interested in Primitivo. “The consumer now perceives Primitivo as a quality wine” says Mirko Sciutto. Different price ranges - lower for Primitivo del Salento and higher for Primitivo di Manduria – make it possible to approach two kinds of consumers, those looking for a fragrant everyday red wine to pair with meat dishes and those wishing to buy a rich opulent product. It is not by chance but by design that the latter comes in massive, quite heavy bottles aimed at luxury-driven markets such as China.

 

Terroir-driven Primitivo

The big changes undergone in the last few years have encouraged producers to strive for a wine that can be truly representative of the land. Therefore, after succeeding in turning Primitivo from a bulk wine for blending into a wine in its own right, they have concentrated their efforts on making wine with a sense of place. “Constant experimentation both in the vineyards and the cellar has led to multifaceted products which are more and more complex and able to convey different terroirs” explains Francesco Cavallo of Cantine San Marzano. “At first, Primitivo producers aped other prominent reds from Italy or simply followed market trends. Now, thanks to the efforts of many private estates we are discovering terroir-driven Primitivo. Let’s just consider the differences between a Primitivo produced next to the sea and one from the hills” points out Giuseppe Sportelli in charge of marketing at Amastuola winery, an estate established in 2003 by Giuseppe Montanaro and run with his daughter Ilaria and sons Donato and Filippo.

 

Investors from Northern Italy

Giuseppe Montanaro of Amastuola winery and Pirro Varrone represent people from Puglia who have invested in their own region, either creating something from scratch with money from other businesses, as Giuseppe Montanaro has done, or quitting their jobs and entirely devoting themselves to viticulture, thus enhancing inherited vineyards, which is what happened to Pirro Varrone. There are wineries from Northern Italy such Botter in Veneto and Natale Verga in Lombardy that have been doing business for a long time in Puglia. “Primitivo is one of the varieties we have always worked with” says Natale Verga. In recent years, though, there has been an increase in investments from other parts of Italy, especially Veneto. Zonin with Masseria Altemura, Tommasi with Masseria Surani as well as Tinazzi are some of the most famous examples. This trend is partly due to the fact that Puglia’s reputation has noticeably increased. Elena Ciurletti expounds further: “Our decision to invest in Primitivo was guided by its reputation, along with emotional and commercial considerations”. Tourism has rocketed too, providing the region with another important marketing strategy, especially for European tourists who drive to Puglia and buy wines before returning home. Many wineries, such as Amastuola, have a wine resort too, highlighting once more the potential for tourism.

 

Primitivo goes organic

Another important change is the gradual conversion to organic viticulture. Puglia is the third-largest region in Italy in terms of organically farmed acreage, after Sicily and Tuscany, thanks to the dry windy weather which prevents fungal diseases. According to Adriano Pasculli de Angelis, 7% of the total area within the Primitivo di Manduria appellation is now organic, despite the fact that “Primitivo is a difficult variety to farm organically due to its thin skin”. Nevertheless, many wineries farm organically - including Amastuola and Pirro Varrone - or are converting, such as Masseria Borgodei Trulli. Unfortunately, going the extra mile is not always reflected in the price, complains Pirro Varrone. Cantine San Marzano also has an organic estate where they are carrying out research into minor native varieties. “Masseria Samia is an agronomic and cultural project which embodies our idea of the future: sharing knowledge and beauty” explains Francesco Cavallo. The project can be seen as one of the many results Primitivo has been able to achieve, after having carved out a new image for itself and for Puglia.  

By Irene Graziotto - Photo credit:courtesy of the wineries.