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  • Writer's pictureSanto Vino


Among the most appreciated Italian varietal wines in the Philippines there is an Italian inky, tannic grape called “Primitivo” which has been sold on the local market, in different quantity and quality, since the early 80’s. This full-bodied red wine is not only appreciated for its high price/quality ratio but also for a silky, jammy tasting note which did - and still does – appeal the local palates, notably women’s...

However Primitivo, one of the most important grape grown in Southern Italy, is not a sweet wine, of the Novellino kind if you know what I mean, and neither a dessert wine. Instead its smoothness and concentrated ripe fruit flavor are perceived as such on the palate because its berries develop a high sugar concentration levels which, during fermentation, turn consistently into alcohol. This is the reason why Primitivo red wine styles all show high alcoholic contents, from 14% to 16% and above…

This wine tastes fruit forwarded at first while later on hints of fresh figs, black cherries, myrtle, aromatic wood and licorice – from the terroir where it grows in the hot, dry Puglia (Apulia) region – would take over. Aging in oak barrels helps Primitivo to soften its tannins and achieve its characteristic pitch-black color and a plush mouthfeel. Thus, earthy and tannic, high in alcohol, Primitivo’s ripe fruit and weighty wine makes it a great pairing partner with rich, meaty dishes perfectly matching, for instance, braised lamb, goat meats, grilled steaks, BBQ, cold cuts and aged cheeses. As for Asian cuisine, Primitivo proved to pair nicely, for instance, with Korean specialties such as bulgogi and kalbi but also Filipino beef short ribs adobo, Filipino style pork BBQ and Indian curries.

It is definitely worth knowing more about this grape; there are studies suggesting that Primitivo arrived in Puglia from the other side of the Adriatic, the Dalmatian coast, brought by Illyrian immigrants at the same time Greeks were settling in Calabria and in Campania in the 7th Century B.C.

In fact, the Roman author Pliny the Elder noted in his 1st Century A.C. book Historia Naturalis that Manduria, where high-end Primitivo is currently grown, was a region “full of vines”… Other Roman writers praised Apulian wines as well, such as Martial, Varro and Horace (“no poem was ever written by a water drinker…”) though we don’t have evidence that they were specifically talking about the Primitivo.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, during the following agricultural decline that lasted until the late Middle Age, some monasteries in Salento and few Benedictine monks in Murgia (both Apulian sub-regions) managed to keep alive the cultivation of vines, among which it could have been the ancestor of the Primitivo.

Some alternative studies maintain that between the 15th and 16th Centuries groups of Greek-Albanians (the so called “schiavoni”) crossed the Adriatic sea and fled to Puglia to escape enslavement by the invading Ottomans, thus dedicating themselves - in the new land - to the cultivation of a vine they brought along, possibly the ancestor of the Primitivo.  

No matter the different theories, the first written evidence about Primitivo in Italy goes back to the second half of the 18th Century, when a monk, Francesco Filippo Indelicati, noticed that there was a grape in his monastry’s vineyard that ripened before all others… Recording it, he called it “Primaticcio” - later turned into “Primitivo” - from the Latin word “primativus”, meaning “early ripener”.

This variety of red grape is grown today all over across Puglia but it has found its ideal habitat in two areas above all others: the hills of Gioia del Colle and Bari province in the Murgia uplands (Primitivo dolce naturale DOCG) and the red soils of Taranto Province (Primitivo di Manduria DOC).

As far as Primitivo di Manduria is concerned, story goes that Primitivo vines physically arrived in Taranto Province and in Manduria only in 1881, when a Countess Sabina di Altamura brought Primitivo cuttings from Gioia del Colle as part of her dowry after marrying nobleman Tommaso Tafuri Schiavoni (Schiavoni as a descendent of the Greek-Albanian “schiavoni”, just a coincidence?). His cousin, Menotti Schiavoni, began growing Primitivo in a coastal vineyard near Manduria town called Campo Marino thus obtaining a wonderful full-bodied wine. His first label is still carefully preserved; it bears the date 1891 and the denomination “Campo Marino”.

From 1920 onwards Primitivo di Manduria expanded consistently from Manduria to its surrounding area and across the entire Province of Taranto.

Primitivo was also mentioned in the first studies carried on in Apulia by the Ampelographic Commission, a Government Institution concerned about the identification and classification of grape vines created after the National Ampelographic Committee was set up in 1872.

About at the same time, Count Ernesto of Sambuy left written articles about Italian wines presented at the World Exhibition in Vienna in 1873, specifically mentioning among them a 1869 “Primaticcio” from the province of Bari…

Another extraordinary testimony, found in the Journal of Italian Viticulture and Winemaking (Conegliano vol. V, 1881), is an article by Antonio Carpenè, the father of Prosecco, goes like this: “If vinification in Southern Italy would come straight from healthy winemaking principles, then from those regions so favoured by nature you would obtain exquisite wines to rival the most famous wines in the world”. And he quoted a Primitivo Nero di Turi from 1867 (!) thus proving that in the second half of 19th Century, Primitivo was already the main grape variety in the Apulian plateau with Gioia del Colle at its centre.

While Primitivo is grown only in Puglia (Apulia), a grape called Zinfandel has made a name for itself in the USA since the early 19thCentury. Zinfandel, cultivated primarily in the California regions of Lodi, Napa Valley, and Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County is a lighter bodied wine than the dense Primitivo. If both can express a sweetness from ripe fruit, Primitivo is usually made in an earthier, more tannic style.

Nobody knew that Zinfandel and Primitivo were the same grape until the 1990s and nobody knew that Primitivo and Crljenak Kastelanski - an obscure vine surviving only in a few vines on the Dalmatian coast (!) - were the same grape until the 2000s, when genetic analysis unequivocally proved it thus establishing a family tree.

The relationship between Primitivo and Zinfandel was discovered by Austin Goheen of Davis University in California who in 1967 visited his Bari University colleague Giovanni Martelli. When Goheen was offered to taste a Primitivo he noticed many similarities with Zinfandel. A series of related studies culminated in 1994 when it was demonstrated that the two varieties were genetically identical. Later on it was also proved that Primitivo was genetically similar to Crljenak Kastelanski, a grape which almost disappeared from Croatia until rediscovered as the ancestor of Primitivo and Zinfandel.

In 2018 about 7 millions bottles of Primitivo have been produced in Puglia of which 70% was exported and sold worldwide worth around 6 Billions of Filipino Pesos.

Since 2015, Philippine Sommeliers Inc. and The Italian Wine Club in Manila have organized many Primitivo wine tasting events at iTrulli Fashion, Food and Wine in Makati City and other prestigious Metro Manila locations. Every single time the events were a huge success thus confirming Primitivo’s popularity also among the young Filipino Millennials and Generation Z, already exposed to good wines.

It is hard not to love Primitivo which, beside having its own character and style, it is a fine, cost effective, high quality, food friendly and cool red wine, part of the rich Italian regional wine heritage, embedded in our culture and lifestyle.

Primitivo is an Italian native grape Filipinos fell in love with more than 30 years ago, and this relationship is still growing strong.

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