Zinfandel is one of the most historic and beloved red wine grapes of California. First planted by Italian immigrants to the wine country in the early 1800s, Zinfandel is originally from Puglia, Italy, where it is known as Primitivo. Big, red and jammy, Primitivo is named for the early ripening character of the grape, which matures primo, or first, on the vine. History does not reveal when Primitivo rebranded as Zinfandel. Like so many Italians to reach the New World, “Zin” got a fresh start upon arrival and cemented a legacy with ancestral roots.
Located on the southern heel of Italy, sun-kissed Puglia is a popular tourist destination. The spiritual home of Primitivo, Puglia is a slice of heaven known for charming villages, turquoise waters and tasty food and wine. Surrounded by water on three sides, white-washed towns hug the cliffs with sea views that make the region feel like a Greek island. The cool vibe has attracted a very in-crowd. Gucci just launched its 2023 resort collection in Puglia, and many Baroque palazzi have been impeccably restored into five-star retreats. Above all, agriculture looms large in Puglia: olives, vines and wheat thrive in the iron-rich plains, a breadbasket for the rest of Italy.
Primitivo wines go naturally with the flow of Puglia and have a decadent side to keep things spicy. Wine critic Jancis Robinson describes the flavors as “the ripest of red cherries, leather and warm liquorice.” Bold and appealing, the wines deliver a range of styles, from fresh cherry to a full-on jam session. In the local trattoria culture, simple dishes are often the most sublime with Primitivo, including favorite pairings like orecchiette pasta, pizza rustica, polpettes (meatballs) and grilled veggies drizzled in piccante olive oil.
Puglia has three primary DOC appellations to seek out for top-quality Primitivo: Salento, Gioia del Colle and Manduria, each with their own nuances. DOC Primitivo del Salento is a great value option from a broad area on the Salento peninsula that benefits from cooling coastal breezes. Further north, the small appellation of DOC Gioia del Colle near Bari includes the oldest plantings of Primitivo. Planted at higher elevation in limestone soils, Gioia wines are elegant and refreshing. DOC Primitivo di Manduria to the west is known for its terra rossa, the striking iron-red clay that delivers big flavors. The Mediterranean climate is typical of southern Puglia: hot and dry, the vineyards are planted alongside ancient olive groves to yield a timeless stock of full-bodied reds. In select vintages, producers also make DOCG Dolce Naturale from Manduria, a special Primitivo sweet wine. Dolce grapes dry naturally on the vine to concentrate sugars and are pressed to a deep garnet-red with notes of ripe plum, blackberries and spice.
As quality-minded producers and new investors move beyond bulk reds, Primitivo from Puglia is emerging as a noble variety. In 1999, Italian producers won the right to label their Primitivo wines as Zinfandel, resulting in an export boom to the United States and a 50% increase in plantings. In 1998, the Antinori family from Tuscany took a big position in Puglia with the purchase of two large vineyards on the Salento peninsula and the launch of Tormaresca winery. Also inspired by the untapped potential of Puglia, winemaker Claudio Quarta founded Tenute Eméra in 2003 with the purchase of his first estate in Manduria. Quarta’s cutting-edge winery is housed in a 16th-century masseria (fortified farmhouse), the largest of four cellars dedicated to preserving the heirloom varieties of Puglia. Sourced from old vines planted close to the Ionian Sea, Tenute Eméra Primitivo di Manduria is an exceptional example of expert winemaking balanced with a respect for tradition.
California wine lovers spent years searching for the origins of Zinfandel before making the connection to Puglia. Affectionately called “Zin-quest,” the first break came in 1967 when a plant researcher on a trip to Puglia noted some uncanny similarities and sent cuttings of Primitivo back to California. In 1994, DNA profilers at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology finally cracked the code to prove that Primitivo and Zin grapes are one and the same.
California’s zest for Zin has helped elevate Primitivo from Puglia to new heights. It’s a proud reversal of fortunes for a once forgotten place that sent waves of immigrants to our shores during the Gold Rush. Thankfully, some of them had the foresight to bring their native grapes on the long journey. Whether you see it as a revolution or renaissance, Primitivo di Puglia has come a long way. For many wine watchers, the best is yet to come. *
Helen Gregory is the founder and president of Gregory + Vine. She has worked in strategic brand management and communications for beverage industry leaders such as Moët Hennessy USA, Rémy Cointreau and STOLI, and has led award-winning hospitality, beverage and lifestyle campaigns for prestige clients from the European Union to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Israel, South Africa and across the United States.
TORMARESCA TORCICODA PRIMITIVO 2019
100% PRIMITIVO FROM SALENTO. MORELLO CHERRIES AND PLUMS
WITH SPICY OAK AND NOTES OF LICORICE AND VANILLA.
MATANE PRIMITIVO 2020
100% PRIMITIVO FROM NORTHERN PUGLIA. DEEP RUBY RED, WITH
NOTES OF PLUMS, CHERRIES, ROSEMARY AND VANILLA.
WELL-BALANCED AND EASY TO DRINK, AN OUTSTANDING VALUE.
TENUTE EMÉRA ANTICA MASSERIA
DEL PRIMITIVO DI MANDURIA 2018
100% PRIMITIVO FROM MANDURIA. FULL-BODIED
ON THE PALATE WITH RICH BERRY JAM FLAVORS.