Primitivo is practically synonymous with Puglia and the south of Italy. Yet it is taking a plucky band of pioneers to re-establish it in its truest form, as a bush vine. Monty Waldin reports
The small town of Manduria lies a 40-minute drive southeast of the southern Italian port of Taranto, along a gently rising, arrow-straight road. This is the Salento peninsula, the broiling heel of Italy’s boot.
My father came here in 1944, having landed at Taranto with Allied troops. With his radio receiver he’d crawl in Salento’s dusty, iron-rich red soil, using the local olive groves and vineyards as cover. Back then, Manduria’s vineyards were overflowing with Primitivo, Puglia’s signature red wine grape. Since the vines grew as low free-standing bush or alberello, Primitivo provided the perfect cover. To this day, Primitivo bush vines dating from the 1930s and 1940s remain in this arid part of Italy’s heel. But over the last 20 years most have been ripped out.
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Primitivo from Manduria is distinct as far as Puglian Primitivo goes because Manduria’s position in the middle of the Salento peninsula means it gets cooling sea winds from both the Adriatic sea to the east and the closer Ionian sea to the west. Nearby Sava is one of the best areas for Primitivo in the Manduria zone.
Massimiliano Pichierri’s grandfather started making Primitivo in Sava in the 1950s. ‘Sava is only 12km from the Ionian Sea,’ says Pichierri. ‘Sea winds give Primitivo here a savoury quality. But the flavour profile also depends on how deep the topsoil is over the spongy limestone below. The limestone holds the water the vines need to survive. Primitivo vines on 4m of topsoil produce higher yields and lighter wines than vines like ours in Sava, where the topsoil is shallow at less than 1m. We get smaller, more mineral-tasting grapes as a result.’
The Cantele family also works with old bush-vine Primitivo from Sava for its top Fanòi bottling. Umberto Cantele says, ‘Sava and Manduria on the warmer, western Ionian side of Salento are where the best bush vines are. It is harder to find bushvine Primitivo on the eastern Adriatic side as vines there are usually trained to posts and wires to get higher yields. Salento’s unspoilt beaches are making Puglia a tourist destination. Visitors want a food-friendly style of Primitivo, and this is what we try to give them.’