Along with Negroamaro and Nero di Troia, Primitivo is one of Puglia’s most famous native grapes and one of the ten most-plated grapes in Italy, almost exclusively in Puglia. The variety owes its name to Francesco Filippo Indelicati, a priest in Gioia del Colle, in the province of Bari, who studied this grape in depth in the late 18th century.
Experimenting in the vineyard with selections of various varieties of the same general type, he identified one whose trait of early-ripening caused it to stand out from the others; he baptised it Primativo, or Primaticcio, with the Latin name Primativus. Later, cuttings of Primitivo reached Manduria, in the province of Taranto, between 1700 and 1800, brought there by migrant workers from Gioia del Colle. In 1967, Austin Goheen, plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Professor at the University of California at Davis, was the first academic to realize that Primitivo and Zinfandel could be identical varieties. After many studies and fruitful collaboration between UC Davis and the Istituto Sperimentale per la Viticoltura di Conegliano (Experimental Viticultural Institute of Conegliano), 1994 brought definitive proof that the two varieties were genetically identical. This discovery led to numerous studies to determine the origins of Primitivo-Zinfandel, which began with the first documentation of the presence of Zinfandel in the USA, published in an 1830 catalogue of Prince’s nursery on Long Island, NY. It listed the grape as the Black Zinfandel of Hungary, and since there was no trace of such a grape in either Hungary or in Austria, the hunt for the origins of Primitivo focused on the Dalmatian coast. In 2001, proof came that it was identical with a native Croat grape, Crljenak Kastelansky, which in turn was genetically identical with Pribidrag, a Croat variety already known in the 15th century. Apart from its genetic identity, Primitivo is well-known for its tendency to substantially alter its morphology depending on the terroir in which it is grown. It is a challenging grape, since it shows little resistance to either drought or spring freezes, and it is prone to shatter in particularly rainy or wet seasons; in addition, its fairly compact cluster can favour attacks of mould. Such problems, however, are all but non-existent in Puglia, where soils and weather are particularly favourable to this cultivar. Another characteristic of Primitivo is that its berries quite easily accumulate substantial quantities of sugar and therefore produce high-alcohol wines. Further, the skin is very rich in anthocyanins; this quality, when combined with those high sugar levels, explains why Primitivo has always served as the perfect wine for blending with “thinner” central European wines. Puglia has two DOPs exclusively dedicated to this variety, Primitivo di Manduria and Primitivo di Gioia del Colle, each specifically involving the communes that historically have proved most suited to Primitivo. Since these two denominations differ in their weather and soils, even quite significantly, their wines too can be quite different in style. Numerous other Puglia denominations, of course, utilise this grape as well. Primitivo is so early-ripening that it is generally harvested two or three weeks before the native whites, such as Bombino Bianco.