History and origins of Primitivo di Manduria

Since 1974, when the Primitivo di Manduria DOC was recognised, the notoriously errant Primitivo grape variety has found its home, laying the foundations for its establishment as the undisputed symbol of Puglia’s viticulture and oenology.. This article tells you about the origins of Primitivo di Manduria, the territories the grapes are harvested in, its extraordinary characteristics, the wine made from its grapes and also why it is so important for Cantine San Marzano.

It is very difficult to retrace all the steps of this variety from its origins to the present day. In particular, now that we have become accustomed to considering Primitivo the Apulian native par excellence, more and more people want to speculate on how and when this variety actually arrived in this narrow strip of land. Puglia is indeed, geographically and historically, a region open to the most diverse influences, lying between East and West, a landing place par excellence even before the Mediterranean was called Mare Nostrum.

Etymology of the name Primitivo

Let’s start with the name: Primitivo. This is because it matures early. This unequivocal characteristic has made it possible for us to place the first indisputable marker of the presence of Primitivo in Puglia, specifically in Gioia del Colle. Here, Canon Francesco Filippo Indellicati, who lived between 1700 and 1800, noticed that in his vineyard, where vines were grown in bulk, there was one that had a shorter growing cycle, sprouting later and maturing earlier than the others. The clergyman therefore isolated this vine, giving rise to the first monoculture of this plant, which he called Primaticcio, or Primativo, hence, of course, Primitivo.

Diffusion in the rest of Puglia

It did not take long for Primitivo to spread from the Adriatic coast (Gioia del Colle) to the Ionian coast (Manduria). At the end of the 19th century, Countess Sabini di Altamura married the Mandurian nobleman Tommaso Schiavoni Tafuri and brought as a gift some vine shoots of this variety, which were then planted on the coastal dunes of Campomarino di Maruggio by the groom’s cousin. Don Menotti Schiavoni vinified and obtained what has remained in history as the first bottle of Primitivo, labelled “Primitivo di Campo Marino”, year 1891.
From there on, it is fairly recent and well-documented history, the vine spreading to neighbouring areas and becoming the backbone of viticulture in the area, leading to the creation of the denomination of origin Primitivo di Manduria DOC.

Relationships and differences between Apulian Primitivo and Californian Zinfandel

What happened before Don Indellicati found this grape variety in his now historic vineyard seems to be a compelling saga that has opened up many scenarios. These scenarios are tentatively reconstructed from the 1970s onwards and are not entirely clear yet. The trigger for the investigations to reconstruct the history of Primitivo was, as almost always, chance: at dinner in a restaurant in Bari, a phytopathologist from the University of Davis (California) notices that the wine ordered by his native colleague bears a striking resemblance to a wine he knows very well: Californian Zinfandel. Hence the birth of a motivated Apulian-American “task force”: unleashed first for obvious reasons of competition and national pride, i.e. to get to the bottom of the dilemma as to which of the two grape varieties, Primitivo or Zinfandel was born first, the task force then concentrates on the search for the mysterious ancestor, if any.
And as always, history becomes the key to reading and understanding oenography, especially for a traveller grape par excellence like Primitivo.

The probable Balkan origin of Primitivo

Without wishing to go over all the steps, hypotheses and discoveries of the last 50 years (a mission that is almost impossible, also because research is still ongoing), what can be considered to be fairly well supported by evidence is that, to the peace of mind of early scholars, the paternity of the grape variety is neither Apulian nor Californian, but rather Balcanic. More precisely, the variety is said to have originated between Croatia and Montenegro, which until World War I were places of contention between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.
In fact, several varieties with similar genetic heritage have been found from Split to Shkodra Lake (in Montenegro, on the border with Albania), from the one closest to Zinfandel, to the one closest to Primitivo, all of them related.
The most credible hypotheses so far see one of the varieties originally located near Dalmatia leaving in 1820 from the nursery of the imperial Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna and crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The vine thus settled in a nursery on the US east coast, and then later set out to conquer the west, in California.
Another variety, the Kratosija, very old and of Montenegrin origin, moved between 1400 and 1500 from the Albanian coast to Gioia del Colle by sea, probably in the hands of Greek and Albanian Christian Orthodox refugees or Slavs fleeing the Ottoman Empire. Hence it also seems to have taken the name Zagarese (from Zagreb), indicating precisely its Slavic origin, creating some confusion for the purpose of reconstructing the facts.
Like practically all grape varieties, Primitivo moved from East to West, adapting to the terroir and enriching the ampelographic heritage of the regions of destination or, if we want, in hindsight, of choice.