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Primitivo - Black velvet - Bortársaság magazine

Primitivo - Black velvet

Let’s start with clarifying what Primitivo is and what it isn’t. First of all, Primitivo is not primitive – the name actually originates from the fact that it ripens before other varieties do.

Italian Primitivo is identical to Californian Zinfandel, which is not the same as Austria’s Zierflandler or Pécs’ Cirfandli, although the name evolved from Zinfandel through mis-hearings and sound changes. However, in fact, Primitivo and Zinfandel are the same as Tribidrag, even if no one has ever heard of the Tribidrag variety over the last 300 years – apart from of course ampelographers. This is because Tribidrag vanished without a trace, somewhere on the Dalmatian coast, or more precisely since it was mixed up with the Plavac Mali variety and thought to be it.

As for ourselves, the story began when people started coming into our stores specifically with the aim of buying Primitivo di Manduria. We quickly came to the realization that what we could offer at the time did not match the demand. The last time we witnessed such a surge in interest in a wine was in the case of Malbec, and based on Primitivo’s character, the style and price of the wines made from it, it’s easy to imagine that we’re on the threshold of a similar success story.

The Zinfandel investigation

In the world of wine, it’s not at all uncommon for a variety to be kicked out of its homeland and sink into obscurity, only to be fostered in another part of the world, where it is ‘schooled’ and makes a successful career. Something similar happened to Malbec: it was ousted from Bordeaux – today Cahors is the French wine region where Malbec is the main variety, though under the name Auxerrois or Côt – while its Argentinian version became the world’s favourite steak wine. Thanks to the American career of Zinfandel, people started taking Primitivo seriously, and the replanting of Tribidrag has begun in Croatia.

In the late 1960s, Zinfandel, adored by Californians, turned out to be identical to Primitivo grown in Puglia (Apulia), Italy. The latter, however, had long been suspected to have originated from present-day Croatia and was presumed to be identical to the Plavac Mali variety. This suspicion was refuted in 1982, when DNA tests revealed that Plavac Mali and Primitivo/Zinfandel are two different varieties. However, Croatian-born, Californian wine legend Mike Grgich, didn’t leave it at that, knowing that if he could manage to find the ancestor of Zinfandel in his homeland, it would immediately establish the reputation of Croatian wines in America.

Thanks to collaboration between the University of California, Davis and the University of Zagreb, the Croatian ancestor was finally found to the north of Split, in 2001. The few remaining vines were called Crljen Kaštelanski by the locals. A year later, it also turned out that these vines were the same as those of an old lady living in Svinišće, which in turn were called Pribidrag, which is in fact Tribidrag – the grape that use to give the favourite red wine of the rich during the era of the Venetian Republic. Since the first written mention of Tribidrag dates from 1488, it became the official name of the variety.

The wine of sunshine

Puglia is the heel of the Italian boot, from the Achilles tendon to the ankle. According to many, it has stronger connections to the Mediterranean, especially Greece and Phoenicia, than to the rest of Italy. If we look at it from the aspect of wine, then the stiletto itself is the larger and more permissive area regarding the origin, that is Salento, while the narrower sector in the middle of it is Primitivo di Manduria DOC. Refreshing and drying winds arrive from the east, from the Adriatic Sea, and from the west from the Ionian Sea.

The sun shines endlessly in Puglia, and Primitivo is perfect for transforming the sunlight into an ink-black, powerful, aroma-rich and tannic wine. In many famous wine regions, winemakers need to add sugar to the wine in order to achieve the desired level of alcohol, contrary to the problem here, which is that it’s hard to stay below 16%, without residual sugar. Therefore, historically, two directions emerged for the use of the grapes: one being for making natural sweet wine (Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale) and the other being selling it off as a kind of red wine concentrate, which is then used to fortify the paler wines of the regions to the north. The larger part of the crop is still used for the latter purpose, and proud France also takes a good share of it. However, the wine pumped into the tanker trucks never provided a large income, while working with traditional bush-vines is also a demanding task. It’s no wonder that when grubbing-up subsidies were introduced by the European Union in the 1990s, many small-scale producers in Puglia jumped at the opportunity and as a result, the area under vine of Primitivo fell below 8,000 hectares.

That’s when Uncle Sam came into the picture: in 1994, it was proven that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same variety, and with that, the light shone at the end of the tunnel. Italian bureaucracy has acted relatively swiftly, and since 1999, Primitivo can also be sold as Zinfandel. By 2010, the decline in arable land had been reversed and 12,000 hectares of land is now registered with the grape variety.

What is Primitivo like?

Just like Zinfandel, it has a high-octane rating. It’s prone to shrinking, and its alcohol level can reach 18%. The wine made from Primitivo is dark and full-bodied, with spicy, velvety tannins, aromas of forest fruits, sour cherry, chocolate, cinnamon and gingerbread. The alcohol sweetness is accompanied with a salty, umami-like character and lively acids. Tasting Primitivo is a bit like time travelling into the past: into a wilder, more mysterious, more passionate world. And the imagination is accelerated by the fact that it is literally intoxicating, as it rivals Port in alcohol terms. As one renowned expert once put it, when he wanted to forget the evils of the world, he would open such wine, and then settle down in a rocking chair by the fireplace with a good book in his hand.

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