Primitivo, like its American counterpart Zinfandel, is a clone of a Croatian grape called Crljenak Kaštelanski. Grown in the Puglia region of southern Italy, Primitivo is generally a lot like Zinfandel-low in tannin, a bit high in alcohol, with brambly or jammy characteristics. It’s a lover of dry heat, abuse-tolerant and tough. Primitivo is less blackberry-esque than California Zin; figs, blueberries, raspberries and black plums are often present and it will often have a “fruit leather” quality and some herb and spice tones (violet and juniper are not uncommon; nutmeg and cinnamon likewise). The grapes have a strange bitter kick to them, which nicely counterbalances their tendency to accumulate a lot of sugar really fast (the name “Primitivo” comes from the grape’s very early ripening timeframe). People who like their red wine restrained and understated will not necessarily find Primitivo easy to love; it’s big. People who love unabashed fruit-forwardness and effusive warmth should be on the lookout for Primitivo. It’s usually modestly priced for the quality, and it is generally a very friendly, let your hair down kind of wine.
Like Zinfandel, Primitivo comes into its own as a partner for meditative grill-tending, and it pairs very well with basically anything you’ve cooked on that grill, as it’s got a natural affinity for smoke. It’s also a stellar pizza wine, and because of its low tannin content, it’s a red that can stand up to tomatoes. I wouldn’t count on it to spotlight a very delicate salad or a plate of oysters, but a pasta carbonara would get along with it very well.
5 Bottles to Try
San Marzano Anniversario 62 Riserva Primitivo di Manduria (Puglia, $25)
Old vine grapes are allowed to dry a bit on the vine for this wine, resulting in a sweet, concentrated and very intense situation. It’s bold but soft, with excellent complexity and spicy aromatics. While a little on the sweet side, it might be the least fruity wine on this list-the dominating impression is of cocoa and coffee and vanilla and tobacco. The finish is reminiscent of prunes with a little candied cherry. Very robust and very elegant.
Idiot’s Grace Columbia Gorge Primitivo (Oregon, $25)
So, not all the Primitivo comes from Apulia-there are a handful on the West Coast too. This one comes from the beautiful Columbia Gorge and it’s a little different than the Italian ones. The basaltic terroir of the gorge inflects it with a leaner, more mineral quality and a certain brashness. It’s dark violet-red, spicy, and brambly blackberry is more discernable than cherry jam or black plum. It’s bold and well-balanced and fun.
San Marzano Il Pumo San Marzano Primitivo Salento (Puglia $15)
Aged in stainless steel. Brilliant purplish color, spice notes on the nose (both baking spice and incense). Fruit palate leans toward black cherries, but also shows dark plum and blackberry notes. There’s a trace of resinous herbs in this wine, definitely rosemary and possibly thyme. Very silky vanilla-inflected finish. This wine appreciates tangy hard cheeses.
San Marzano Sessantani Primitivo di Manduria (Puglia, $30)
Primitivo is a grape where “old vines” definitely means something; this wine is an example. Intense and “mature” with a deep, saturated, brilliant ruby color and effusive nose. Dominant notes are plum jam, cherries, coffee and cocoa, with a trace of tobacco. Rich vanilla finish. An “ample” sort of wine, and one that might actually prefer solitude to socializing. Drink it while contemplating a sunset or something. It’s a good patio or porch companion.
San Marzano Talo San Marzano Primitivo di Manduria (Puglia, $18)
Ruby with violet reflexes. An ebullient nose full of cherry compote and plum notes, quite a bit of vanilla and some cacao. Finish is warm and comes across as “sweet” (it’s not particularly a residual sugar sweet, Primitivo just feels sweet, with an almost marmalade-like quality). Despite the low tannin content, it has fine structure and great persistence.