A Small Tasting of Primitivos

by Jean Engelke, Better Living With Wine

Welcome Friends! Today we will be letting you know the details of our latest ‘small tasting.’ While visiting our wine store, one of the associates looked into our basket and saw a Primitivo we picked out purely due to curiosity (and we love Zinfandel). He indicated that it was not one of the better ones they had, and directed us to another. Instead of putting the first back on the shelf, a wine tasting was born. Primitivo! In the spirit of fairness, a third was picked up to balance the pack. As you may know, Primitivo is the name in Italy (Puglia region) and Zinfandel in the US. We did not want to confuse the two, so three from Italy, all from Puglia, were chosen.

Our guest for the evening was (is) a good friend and was totally unaware of the game afoot. Dinner was planned at the moment the tasting was confirmed, an Italian trademark, Pasta Puttanesca, a recipe from my father-in-law.

Preparation for the tasting started with a geographical search of our wines origin. Although the Primitivo in our tasting came from the Puglia region of Italy (the boot), the grape is originally traced back to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski. DNA analysis also shows that Primitivo is genetically identical to Zinfandel, a label of unknown origin placed on the grape when it migrated to the US, specifically California.

Puglia is a long, thin wine region in the far south-eastern corner of the ‘boot’ of Italy. Puglia runs from the point of the heel to the ‘spur’ of the Gargano Peninsula where it juts out into the Adriatic Sea. The heel, the Salento Peninsula, occupies the southern half of the region, is culturally and geographical different when compared to northern Puglia, and the wines are also different. The north is slightly hillier and practices the winemaking customs of central Italy, where the south is almost entirely flat with a Mediterranean climate, and historically has produced bulk wines. The region is responsible for almost half of Italy’s total olive-oil production and has produced mostly red wine. As the world started to demand higher quality wine, the mass-produced wines in which Puglia specialized lost their value. The region as responded with a resurgence of high quality wine production.

Let’s review the wines. The first is the wine suggested by the wine store advisor. Matane Primitivo 2010. He indicated this was a ‘family wine operation,’ where they grow the grapes and make the wine in a family winery. Truth is, Neil and Maria Empsons, global exporters of Italian wines, along with their daughter, Tara Smeralda, visited the Salento peninsula. They were taken by the landscape and vines. They tasted wine made by Filippo Baccalaro, and the Matane’ winery was born.

Unable to find winemakers notes, a review by an enthusiast states “the peppery chocolate mossy nose” was the first sensation. “Wildflower notes rise up…and sweet hints of cherry and plum balance the round tannins, providing fun fruity notes and elegant delivery…without any dryness or acidity in the finish.” ($10)

“One of California’s (perhaps the world’s) most flamboyant, talented, contrarian wine producers is Napa Valley’s Jayson Woodbridge, the owner of Hundred Acre winery” according to Robert Parker. Hundred Acres wines are in limited production and highly sought after. Jayson is also the force behind the Layer Cake label. With winemakers in 5 regions, he strives to make very good wine available to everyone.

Winemakers notes indicate a balance of elegance and power; inky black fruit, spice and white pepper, jammy black cherries, plums, blackberry fruit, truffles, tar, and espresso. Warm and rich in the mouth with a creamy texture; the ripe fruit is well supported by the deep structure of the wine. ($14)

The third wine is A Mano. In Italian, “a mano” means hand-made. The winery is owned by Mark Shannon and Elvezia Sbalchiero. Their location in the Apulian range dictates their manual, authentic Apulian heritage. They claim that “most of the vines” are the original plantings after phylloxera, and range from 70 to 100 years old”. Vineyards average less than half a hectare (1 acre) and are farmed by the third generation family farmers.
Striving for a contemporary style respectful of Apulia’s ancient winemaking heritage, the two pair California techniques of winemaking with the Apulian heritage.

The location is in the “golden triangle” that boasts superb alluvial soil, beautiful deep red and sienna-colored. Tasting notes include a deep blackish-red color with an opaque appearance at the core, going out into a deep purple to blood-red rim definition with high viscosity. A lot of reference to bold fruit and oak, with earthy minerality. ($10)

It was decided we would do a blind tasting, relatively easy because all wines had non-descript black screw caps. We wrapped the bottles in brown paper and twisted away! We started with an initial tasting of the wine with very basic cheddar cheese and pita chips as appetizers. From now on, the wines are referred to as 1, 2 and 3.

The first wine appeared red as garnet. No ‘ink’ color at all. Beautiful in the glass. The nose was fruity and fragrant. The taste offered a very smooth taste of fruit, with an agreed upon long finish. All agreed it was very good. Medium tannins and medium body were noted.

The second wine was much fuller (deeper) in color. It was sharper, and had more pinot notes. It had more pronounced tannins, was a bit drier, but still ‘light.’

The third wine was a much more full red. It was fragrant, had more body and a beautiful mouth feel. It had more complexity than the previous two, and a very good finish.

We took a short break with the Caesar salad course to cleanse our palate. Dinner included the salad, Pasta Puttanesca with chicken breast and fresh baked bread. For those that don’t know, Pasta Puttanesca is a spicy, tangy and salty pasta dish from Southern Italy. It contains tomatoes, brined olives and anchovies to create a thick, smokey sauce. It is heavenly with a good red wine.

Once we had our pasta, the food tasting began. Wine 1 was certainly good, but did not really stand up to the incredible sauce. It was agreed that the wine would be a great ‘starter’ wine (deck or cooking) but this dish needed more.

Wine 2 was immediately pegged as “most improved” by the food. With the pasta, this wine developed and really rose to the occasion. The pinot notes were gone and the Primitivo really came through. The tannins were contained with the depth of the sauce. Beautiful.

The third wine was not really influenced by the food, but still stood on its own merits. The sauce did not overpower, the wine did not mellow or compliment.

The group was not in agreement as to a clear standout. Wine 2 was certainly most improved with the food. All agreed.

The best wine over all, with or without food, was judged to be Wine 3.

Wine 1 was judged to be the most easy drinking and approachable wine, with or without food.


Wine 1 = Matane
Wine 2 = A Mano
Wine 3 = Layer Cake

All agreed all three were very good. Lesson learned, if you need a good tasting, food friendly, guest friendly red wine, Primitivo is it!!

As we all know…better living with wine….

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