Domenico Winery + Osteria

Primitivo Grape Bunch

Italian Grapes 101: Primitivo Grape

In California, we have Zinfandel. In Italy, they have the Primitivo grape. 

Primitivo is a robust, early-ripening grape that hails from the region of Puglia, otherwise known as the ‘heel’ of Italy. This region boasts an ancient winemaking history, all beginning with the arrival of the Greeks nearly 3000 years ago. But, you may be surprised to learn that the Primitivo grape isn’t quite that ancient (but no less fascinating!) Actually, Primitivo didn’t originate with the Greeks or the Italians…

Primitivo Grape Bunch

What is Primitivo?

A big and bold grape variety, Primitivo is a red wine grape known for its intensity, tannins, and high alcohol. It’s an early ripening grape – meaning that it produces fruit (grapes berries) earlier in the harvest season. Since Primitivo’s main home is in a hot and dry place like Puglia, this grape has more sugar, creating wines that are juicy, jammy, and high in alcohol.


Primitivo’s History

This Italian grape’s international recognition often clouds the fact that this grape is really Croatian in origin. Of course, Primitivo’s present-day home is undoubtedly Puglia. Yet, Primitivo’s (and Zinfandel’s) true roots are in Croatia.

The story goes that Primitivo was a Croatian grape known as Tribidrag or Crljenak Kasteljanski. It made its way across the Adriatic to Puglia in the 16th century all because of one priest – Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati. When he discovered the Primitivo grape in Croatia, he fell in love and wanted to immediately bring it back to Puglia. Primitivo was soon planted all across vineyards in the Italian region. Quickly, the monks tending the vineyards noticed that this new grape ripened fast. They decided to name the grape Primitivo, derived from the Latin word for ‘early one.’

It wasn’t long until the Primitivo grape traveled again – this time to America. In the 19th century, Primitivo arrived in California and, as we know, the rest was history. The clone that came to California was named Zinfandel, which most likely comes from the grape’s Hungarian name – tzinifándli.

The funny thing though was – at the time, people didn’t know that Primitivo and Zinfandel were the same thing. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that a genetic study revealed that the two grapes are in fact the same.

Of course, Primitivo and Zinfandel have their differences, given that they are two unique clones that don’t grow in the same place and may see different winemaking practices. So, don’t automatically assume that Primitivo and Zinfandel are going to taste as identical as their genetics.

Fun fact – Tribidrag and Crljenak Kasteljanski both still grow in Croatia along the coast!

Vineyards in Taranto, Puglia

Primitivo’s Flavor Profile

Primitivo doesn’t make a shy wine. This Southern Italian grape produces wines that are full-bodied and full of flavor. They are on the warmer side – Primitivo has a lot of sugar to turn into alcohol, making its wines often a bit on the boozy side. That sugar also makes Primitivo’s fruit more jammy in character. With all that said, though, Primitivo maintains its own identity depending on where it’s grown and the winemaking styles that go with it.

Primitivo di Manduria DOC

These DOC wines come from the magical area of Manduria, known as the home of Primitivo. In Manduria, Primitivo grows in ancient vineyards, creating impressive and big wines that are pretty high alcohol. That’s because Manduria can be an exceptionally hot and dry area, especially in the summer.

The wines here usually have jammy dark fruits, like blackberry and plum, with hints of oak and vanilla. While Primitivo di Manduria DOC wines tend to be on the dry side, Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale DOCG is a sweet wine from the area. This passito style dessert wine boasts a beautiful profile of berries and spice.


Gioia del Colle DOC

North of Manduria and just outside of Bari lay Gioia del Colle. Known for a variety of grapes from Negroamaro to Aleatico, this area also grows Primitivo. The region has higher altitudes than Manduria, making its Primitivo slightly leaner and brighter.

Primitivo from Gioia del Colle can be fruity, with notes of sour cherry and mulberries. Many of these wines also have interesting earth and spice notes, like tobacco leaves.


Primitivo di Salento IGT

This is the largest Pugliese wine region, encompassing many different Primitivo in the Salento peninsula. That said, Primitivo’s character can vary! Don’t be afraid to try out a Primitivo from this IGT and see what it’s like.


California Primitivo

Now, don’t be confused – there is Primitivo AND Zinfandel in California. While these grapes are genetically identical, they are still separate clones. Grape clones have individual evolutionary characteristics, even though they carry the same DNA as their fellow grape brothers. Domenico Winery Primitivo

California Primitivo can be exceptional when grown in places with similar terroir to its Italian homeland. Domenico Winery’s Primitivo comes from Amador County, an AVA (American Viticultural Area) known for its dry climate and abundance of sun exposure. These two things are perfect for Primitivo, as there are climatic features also found in Puglia. The result? An expressive and delicious wine that is reminiscent of the Domenico Family’s homeland, Southern Italy.

The Primitivo grape has a fascinating history and evolution. If you’re a lover of bold red wines (especially Italian ones!) you have to explore the world of Primitivo.

Do you love Primitivo? Or Italian wine altogether? Don’t be shy to explore all the Italian grape varieties that grow right here in California!