The history of Primitivo wine. From the Balkans to the USA

The history of Primitivo wine. From the Balkans to the USA

by Antonio Calò and Stefano Meneghetti


Primitivo was probably introduced into Apulia towards the middle of the eighteenth century and today it is one of the most famous and typical varieties in the region. It is said that the primicerius of Gioia del Colle (in the province of Bari), Don Francesco Filippo Indelicati, isolated a grape variety in the local vineyards and called it Primitivo due the early ripening of its grapes. He planted the first vineyard in the Terzi area, in the Li Ponti district, where there is now a plaque to commemorate the event.

The testimonies of Primitivo wine’s cultivation

It was Giuseppe Musci, the director of the viticulture protection Consortia in Bari, who first mentioned this in an interesting monograph on Primitivo di Gioia in 1913. There have been numerous testimonies of the cultivation and production of this variety in the region: Primitivo was mentioned in the first studies carried out in Apulia by the Ampelographic Commission, created after the Central Ampelographic Committee was set up in 1872, by the then minister for Agriculture, Stefano Castagnola; in the Ampelographic Bulletin of 1875, Dossier I, Giuseppe Frojo listed Primitivo or Primaticcio in the first “official list” of black grapes present in the region, grown in Gioia del Colle, Altamura, Trani and as Pergola grapes in Corato.

The rival Barbera d’Asti

A year earlier, in 1874, in the Annals of Italian Viticulture and Winemaking, Giuseppe Perilli had described it as a “refined variety, with regular production, early ripening, producing a wine of distinct quality to rival Barbera d’Asti, dry, strong coloured with a lively red froth and an alcohol content of 12-14 percent by volume. The only drawback is that it is prone to the so-called apoplexy, or sunstroke of the vine, that stops vegetative growth at ripening, depending largely on its fine and delicate skin. It is mainly grown in Gioia del Colle, where it gives its best quality, thence Acquaviva, Casamassima, Palo del Colle, Bitonto”.

Primaticcio and Primitivo Nero

In the same text, Count Ernesto of Sambuy wrote of Italian wines presented at the World Exhibition in Vienna in 1873, and among them he mentioned a Primaticcio from 1869 from the province of Bari, produced by Mr Cozzalungo. In 1877, the ampelographer from Piedmont, Giuseppe di Rovasenda, listed Primaticcio (in Trani), Primitivo nero (in Altamura), Primitivo nero di Bitonto and Primitivo nero di Turi among the varieties grown in Apulia.

From Gioia del Colle…


Gioia del Colle

Another extraordinary testimony, found in the Journal of Italian Viticulture and Winemaking (Conegliano vol. V, 1881), in an article by Antonio Carpenè, says verbatim: “If vinification in the southern Italian regions came straight from healthy winemaking principles, from those regions so favoured by nature you would obtain such exquisite wines as to rival the most famous wines in the world.” And he specifically quotes a Primitivo di Turi from 1867. Therefore, at the end of the nineteenth century, Primitivo was the main grape variety in the plateau with Gioia del Colle at its centre, where it expressed fineness, character and great quality.

… To Salento

It does not appear among the varieties grown in the Salento area, which is its best-known production area today. However, we must remember that perhaps the variety was present in Terra d’Otranto under the name of Zagarese, because at least one type of this variety studied today has features connected to Primitivo. Girolamo Molon described Primitivo nero in his ampelographical research at the start of the 1900s and indicated Zagarese or Sagarese nero as synonyms, as did Cavazza in 1934. From research carried out (Calò and colleagues) at the Viticulture Experimental Institute in Conegliano (CRA-VIT today), it emerges that different varieties used to go by the name Zagarese: some can be assimilated to Primitivo, whereas others are undoubtedly different.

Antonio Sannio’s theory

At the start of the 1900s, ampelographers started to wonder about the origin of the variety that showed no clear traces of existence in the region before the start of the 1800s. In 1913, Musci noted the selection made at the end of the 1700s by the primicerius of Gioia del Colle. In the Ampelographic Journal of Conegliano, in 1920, Antonio Sannino cast a doubt on the theory that it came from a degeneration of a Pinot imported from Burgundy by the Benedictine monks to one of the monasteries in Gioia del Colle.

Pulliat’s theory

Then came another theory, by Pulliat, of a strong similarity with Dolcetto in Piedmont, but the varieties later proved to be independent and different. After professor Austin Goheen of the University of California (Davis) visited Apulia in 1986, there was talk of similarities with Zinfandel in California, then, with in-depth studies (H.R. Wolfe, H. Olmo and A. Calò), the similarity was established by means of isozyme and DNA analysis carried out both at Davis and the Experimental Institute for Viticulture in Conegliano.

The origins of Zinfandel?


Primitivo’s harvest in Salento

Once the link had been ascertained, Calò reopened the problem of the origin of the variety, based on a detailed historical and genetic analysis and shift ed interest in the place of origin towards “Countries” of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, in line with United States and European literature. In fact, there is documented evidence (C. L. Sullivan) that Zinfandel was taken to California in around 1850 by the Hungarian colonel Agoston Haraszthy.

The Austro-Hungarian theory

It came from New England, where it had been used as a table grape and grown in greenhouses since the 1830s and where it had arrived from a nursery in Long Island. It had probably arrived here, in turn, directly from the Imperial Austrian collection in Schönbrunn (Vienna), in around 1820. Sullivan added to this reconstruction on the basis of a manuscript that indicated how Zinfandel came from Germany, but added: “Naturally, there was no such place as Germany at that time. The use of this term refers to a place where German was spoken.” Other sources, especially the Second Annual Report of the Chief Executive Viticultural Office, published in September 1884 (C.H. Wetmore), refer to a Hungarian origin of the variety, where this term undoubtedly identifies the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


From Italian Wine Chronicle 3/2015. Read for free the magazine

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