Inside Stories

Puglia’s Primitivo: Salivating over the Salento Peninsula

Some wines “speak” to you.

They tell a story about history, culture and the people who cultivated the land, grew the grapes and made the wines.

That’s why I am fascinated by Old World wines from Italy and other European countries where viticulture has played an important role in people’s daily affairs going back thousands of years.

Two red wines that have captivated me recently are from Puglia, Italy’s southeasternmost province that at its end point on the Salento Peninsula forms the “heel” of the country’s famous boot.

The wines are Varvaglione’s Papale Linea Oro Primitivo di Manduria DOP/DOC and Tenute Rubino’s Visellio Primitivo IGT Salento.

While “Apulia” – the name given to Puglia by ancient Greeks – may not be as well-known as its northern wine neighbors in Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto, it commands respect as a production powerhouse. On a yearly basis, Apulian vintners turn out more wine by volume than any of Italy’s 20 regions except for one – Veneto.

And Primitivo, a deeply purple-colored, full-bodied, high alcohol and flavorful red wine, is a primary reason.

Primitivo’s background story is interesting on two fronts.

First, in the 1990s, clonal studies of the grape conducted at the University of California Davis revealed that European Primitivo and California Zinfandel were genetically identical. (Note: Zinfandel vines first arrived in the U.S. by ship in Boston in 1832, en route to California.)

Second, similar DNA studies conducted in 2000 found that Italian Primitivo is genetically identical to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kastelanski which, since the 15th century, has been known in Croatia as Tribidrag. (Note: While Primitivo may have existed in Italy for ages, it was discovered in the late 17th century by a priest in the Apulian town of Gioia del Colle.)

The transatlantic link begs the question: If Primitivo and Zinfandel are nearly the same, why do the wines taste differently on either side of the world?

The simple answer is terroir. California and Italy present uniquely different environments for the vines, leading grapes to develop their own local characteristics and personality. ”Sense of place” really does matter.

No matter which version you prefer, Primitivo-Zinfandel makes for an incredibly rich, jammy and tasteful wine.

Tenute Rubino “Visellio” Primitivo IGT Salento 2019, Brindisi, SRP: $30, abv. 15.5% –

The Salento Peninsula is a strip of land bordered by the Adriatic Sea on its eastern shoreline and the Ionian Sea on its western shoreline. Composed mostly of limestone, the peninsula offers white sandy beaches and gorgeous ocean views from numerous vantage points.

Tenute Rubino is located on the eastern side, about eight miles from the Adriatic near the coastal city of Brindisi.

Tradition and history are important here.

Tommaseo Rubino launched the winery in the 1980s when he planted the estate’s first vines. He saw potential in the land and worked diligently to preserve its natural beauty. Now in the hands of his son Luigi and daughter-in-law Romina, the estate maintains sustainable farming methods on its five vineyards.

Visellio Primitivo is produced in the Salento IGT appellation which covers the entire peninsula. It is one of Italy’s most popular IGTs and Puglia’s volume leader based on bulk wine production.

The Visellio name pays homage to the original area (fundus) founded by ancient Romans that now makes up most of Rubino’s vineyards.

The wine’s grapes are sourced from the Uggi vineyard, a 118-acre site sitting 300 feet above sea level. The soil is a mix of clay and gravel. The climate is sunny and arid. Windy conditions prevail and offer cool night-time breezes, the only relief for overbaked vineyards.

My first taste of Visellio triggered a host of good sensations.

Primitivo’s concentrated fruit flavors, both blue and red, were ripe and rich and formed the core of this gem. Next came a bit of licorice and baking spices, all merging nicely on a softly textured frame. The high alcohol content and lively acidity worked mano a mano to produce a mouthfeel of Mediterranean warmth and pleasure. The finish was dry, fruity and satisfying.

No doubt Visellio is best enjoyed at a food feast of aged cheeses, Italian antipasto, rich pasta and meat dishes and hearty lamb and/or venison stews.

Visellio is aged six months in steel tanks, eight months in French oak barriques, and at least 12 months in bottle. It’s fit to enjoy for the rest of the decade.

Papale Primitivo di Manduria DOC Linea Oro 2019, $30, abv. 14.5% – The Varvaglione family has been crafting wines in the province of Taranto for over a century. The winery is located in the town of Manduria, in the heart of Apulia’s most prestigious appellation, Primitivo di Manduria.

The family’s fourth generation now runs the estate, children of winemaker Cosimo Varvaglione and his wife Maria Teresa. The winery is on the Salento Peninsula’s western side facing the Ionian Sea.

“Linea Oro” means “Golden Line” and Papale represents the house’s top tier of Primitivo. The wine has a favored connection to the Vatican, as expressed in its  papal “grubilio” (jubilee edict) written in Italian on the decorative label.

Papale Linea Oro is a spectacular wine.

I’ve tasted it twice and both times “Papale” delivered precise, seamless harmony and rich layers of savory complexity that put this wine in a regal category for Primitivo.

The color is inky purple and glowing with violet highlights. The fruit is delicious and intense – plum, blackberry and dark cherry – and serves as a magnetic core for secondary notes of brush herbs, espresso, and licorice. All mesh neatly on a bright and forward-flowing, silky palate.

Each sip is extended by a mineral finish of iron and sea spray.

Papale Linea Oro is aged in French barrels and American oak barriques for a minimum 10 months.

The winemaker suggests Papale with lamb stew, grilled beef, game, and pasta dishes oozing with meat ragu`.

Vinous wine critic Eric Guido reviewed Papale in May 2023 and rated it 91 points. He wrote, “It’s velvety in feel yet not weighty. A juicy acidity energizes its ripe wild berry fruits as cinnamon and clove nuances evolve toward the close. This finishes long, concentrated. Rich, complex, balanced.”


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