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Recent “DNA” testing has shown Primitivo to possess the exact same genetic make up as our Zinfandel. Interestingly though, both varieties origins are tracked back to Croatia and are mutated from the Crljenak varietal. And while the grapes may be identical in theory, the wines they produce have distinct differences. Primitivo’s home province is Apuglia (also called Puglia), located in the “heel” of Italy’s boot.
Wines made from Primitivo have notes of plum and spice, like Zinfandel, but because of different growing soils and climate, the fruit character is less jammy, the structure more akin to old world wines, with rustic notes of earth and spice, as well as tamed fruit flavors. Most likely the Croatian vines were brought to Italy by the Greeks, but we know the Zinfandel we know and love came to the United States in 1820, when New York nurseryman George Gibbs carried back various cuttings from the Imperial Austrian plant species collection.
Over the next two decades, Zinfandel became a popular table grape in the Northeast U.S. Although there are some commercial claims that Agoston Haraszthy (who founded Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma) brought Zinfandel to California, records show that a Massachusetts nurseryman introduced it here. In either case, Zinfandel is now considered indigenous to California, where it has thrived since the mid-1850’s.
2006 A. MANO PRIMITIVO, PUGLIA
List price 12.00; our price 9.99
This all Primitivo grape wine from Puglia is made from 70-100 year-old, hand-cultivated, low-yielding vines. A. Mano (meaning “made by hand”) is a fruit-packed, food-friendly, modern wine, an excellent value and a great alternative to American Zinfandel. It pairs exceedingly well with a variety of dishes – grilled meats, rich pastas, spicy foods and barbecue.
2007 GRAN SASSO PRIMITIVO, PUGLIA
List price 14.50; our price 9.99
This example packs all of the fruit-driven ripeness fans of the grape expect, yet remains at all times light on its feet and fresh. The succulent, direct blueberry fruit is laced with notes of briar, gravel and spice, but has none of the thick, port like or oxidized elements so prevalent with so many examples of Primitivo out there.
2007 LAYER CAKE PRIMITIVO, PUGLIA
List price 17.50; our price 14.99
The wine is opaque and purple-colored with a nose of jammy black cherry and blackberry fruit, truffles, tar, and spice. Warm and rich in the mouth; the ripe fruit is well supported by the depth of the structure.
2003 TERRED’UVA PRIMITIVO DI MANDURIA
List price 18.00; our price 14.99
The concentrated nose presupposes rich red fruits and blueberries which are replicated in the mouth to our considerable satisfaction. The smooth expression in the mouth plays out to a long well-balanced finish. It stands up to strong cheeses.
Now to make it more interesting, here are two wines made from Primitivo grapes transplanted to California:
2005 JACUZZI FAMILY VINEYARDS PRIMITIVO, NORTH COAST
List price 19.95; our price 12.99
This Primitivo comes from a hillside vineyard in Lake County. Compared to Zinfandel, the clone has certain characteristics that make it unique from other clones; mainly it has small berries on a fairly large, loose cluster. It is less susceptible to rot than other clones and ripens more uniformly. The wine is deep ruby red, has concentrated strawberry and cranberry flavors and a rich velvety mouth feel.
2006 DI ARIE PRIMITIVO BLOCK #4, SHENANDOAH VALLEY
List price 28.00; our price 23.75
The winery was the brainchild of Chaim Gur-Arieh, a Turkish-born Israeli who came to the U.S. where he earned a degree in food science and later became famous as the inventor of Cap’n Crunch cereal (specifically, the formula that allowed it to remain crunchy in milk). Further, he invented a submerged-cap fermentation technique that maximizes extraction in his red wines by giving them more skin contact, submerging and gently moving the cap that forms on the surface of the tank during fermentation. This delicious wine shares many of the qualities of a top zinfandel. Rich, soft, with spicy fruit and a hint of black pepper, with plenty of fruit and none of the heaviness sometimes seen in wines from the Sierra foothills.