Many American wine drinkers have found their way to Puglia via a grape called primitivo. Several years ago, researchers at UC Davis proclaimed that primitivo, thought to be a native vine of Puglia, was genetically identical to American red zinfandel — and thus the progenitor of all those rich, spicy “zins” from the likes of Turley and Ridge. This Italian-American connection got a fair amount of press, to the point where at least one Puglian primitivo producer, Sinfarossa, began using the word “zinfandel” on labels to enhance its wine’s international appeal.
Turns out that primitivo, too, came from somewhere else. Researchers at the University of Zagreb recently determined that a Croatian vine called Crljenak Kasteljanski, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is the “original zin,” if you will. (Sorry but I just thought that up myself and couldn’t resist using it.)
Still, that connection between primitivo and zinfandel remains — both genetically and in the glass. Americans dig primitivo because it reminds them of wines made at home: It’s chunky, fruity, a little spicy, but so super-ripe and (relatively) tannin-free that those in search of an “easy drinking” red need look no further.
Primitivo’s habitat is the flat, super-hot southern end of Puglia, known as the Salento peninsula, the part that comprises the “heel” of the Italian boot. Here, in soils so iron-rich that they’re the color of rust, giant bush-trained vines turn out primitivo grapes so ripe that the resultant wines are always ready to go on release. These bush vines, known as alberelli (“little trees”) are holdovers from the days of Greek viticulture on the peninsula, and even today this area of Puglia has a very Greek look, with its low-slung, whitewashed villages gleaming in the brilliant sun.
I consider primitivo to be the most friendly and fruity of the three best-known “native” reds of the region, but in my heart (and on the Babbo list), it’s the other two that are gaining momentum. First there’s negroamaro, another Salento native, best known as the key component in the wine called Salice Salentino (Salice Salentino is the name of a town; the wine is 80% negroamaro and 20% malvasia nera). Second, there’s uva di troia, or nero di troia, a dark and spicy little number from the northern Puglian province of Foggia. Thought to have originated in ancient Troy (thus the name), uva di troia may be the most interesting variety of the three; it seems to make the most structured, serious wines, although that may have at least something to do with its slightly hillier, more northern habitat.
As perhaps the most prolific wine-producing region in Italy, Puglia has no shortage of ripe reds for you to try. I often recommend Puglian wines to tannin-phobes, but this is not to say that they are always just simple, juicy reds. I do sometimes find Puglian reds (especially primitivos) to have a over-ripe, almost “cooked” taste to them, but when they’re on they deliver the kind of palate-coating viscosity that has made California reds so popular. Here’s one each from the “big three” to try on your next visit—I like them with some of the spicier southern-style pastas, such as Bucatini all’Amatriciana, Maccheroni alla Chitarra, or the very Puglian Orecchiette with Rapini and Sweet Sausage.
Primitivo “Prima Mano,” A-Mano
American expat winemaker Mark Shannon crafts this thick and spicy primitivo.
Negroamaro “La Corte,” Poggio Il Pino
A plump, plush expression of dark berry fruits. Silky.
Nero di Troia, Rivera
From a great winery in the northern Puglian town of Castel del Monte, the D.O.C. in which this ancient grape thrives. This varietal wine is a little reminiscent of malbec, with its black-as-night hue and wintry spices.