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Primitivo: A return to the old ways

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

Bush-vine Primitivo

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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.

Spotting an opportunity

Australian winemaker Lisa Gilbee and her Italian partner Gaetano Morella created their Morella winery in 2000 to try to save some of what old-vine Primitivo remained. Lisa had worked in Italy as a flying winemaker, and settled in Puglia ‘partly because no one else was making single-vineyard Primitivo. Most Australian red wines are based on French grapes, which taste flabby without heavy acid adjustment in the winery,’ she says. ‘Primitivo’s natural inner freshness means no adjustments are needed. And you don’t have to be a millionare to buy Primitivo vines, live near the beach and make wine here.’

The couple now have 17 hectares of vines, 11ha of which are bush-vine Primitivo from the 1940s. Top quality wines usually come from sloping ground, rather than from the flattish terrain of Salento. Yet, Gilbee says, ‘Primitivo subtly reflects minute changes in the terroir. You can taste profound differences between vines grown only metres apart. And bush vines allow each bunch its own unique microclimate of light, heat, shade, wind and rain. The bush has a three-dimensional shape which you just don’t get with onedimensional vines trimmed along wires in straight lines like hedges.’

Despite her eulogy, Gilbee says that ‘at least 80% of Puglia’s old, bush-vine Primitivo has been lost since we started.’ This was largely due to the European Union paying growers to rip out vines to reduce Europe’s wine lake. ‘Bush vines are naturally low yielding and have to be worked mainly by hand rather than by tractor,’ says Gilbee. ‘I understand why growers selling Primitivo by the kilo cheaply to co-ops ripped out their vines. They waited until interest rates were high then banked the subsidy money for their retirement.’

Gilbee particularly laments one recently ripped-out Mandurian Primitivo vineyard called La Pigna. ‘It produced tiny yields of incredibly deeply coloured grapes. It’s hard to remain optimistic when so many really old vineyards are gone. Mostly only vineyards of around 40 years remain,’ she says.

Regional character

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.’

Outside influences

Cantele was the first Puglian winery to host ‘flying winemakers’ in the early 1990s. But the first foreign winemaker to take up residence in Puglia was Mark Shannon. He arrived in 1997 from California, knowing that Puglian Primitivo was the same as his beloved Californian Zinfandel, and realising that there was a terrific opportunity to style wines for modern palates from ‘bush vines so old and beautiful they gave me goose bumps’.

Shannon and his partner Elvezia Sbalchiero own no vineyards but work with growers in what Shannon calls the ‘triangle of Primitivo’, south-east of Taranto in Sava, Manduria and Torricella.

Shannon has a Masters degree in the sensory perception of grape and wine flavours. ‘Primitivo ripens quickly so in just a few days it can go from being underripe to perfectly ripe, and then to raisined and overripe,’ he says. ‘Saving these old vines means working closely with growers, to get grapes that give you the best shot at making clean wines that express the terroir.’

Primitivo pioneer

Primitivo may not have survived in Puglia without the contribution of the Petrera family. Pasquale Petrera says, ‘In the early 19th century, my greatgreat- great-grandfather, Nicola Petrera, rescued a red grape which ripened prima, meaning before all others. It became known as Primitivo, meaning “first selection”.’

The Petrera winery, Fatalone, is located in Gioia del Colle, just north of the Salento peninsula, where cooling sea breezes are less prevalent than on Salento itself. Pasquale Petrera converted his bush-vine Primitivo to overhead pergolas or strung them horizontally along wires. ‘The vines have more leaves to shade the grapes and produce a less overpowering style of Primitivo. Wines with lower levels of alcohol are what modern drinkers want,’ he asserts.

It is debatable whether Pasquale’s approach in modifying his bush vines encompasses what Mark Shannon calls his own ‘modified idealism’ regarding Primitivo’s very survival. ‘These are not grapes to be pushed, manipulated or mishandled. Primitivo is the most sun-loving grape I have seen. Modern training systems are always inferior to the native alberello. There will be opportunities to plant alberello Primitivo again, if you lead by example. The grapes tell you when they are ripe, meaning with just 5% of raisined berries per bunch. Pick then and you will have a great wine.’

My father probably had no time to drink wine from bush-vine Primitivo when he came to Puglia. But I hope he did at least manage to eat some perfectly ripe bush-vine Primitivo grapes.

Wine writer and biodynamic consultant Monty Waldin has made wine in Italy, France and the Americas, and is a DWWA co-Regional Chair for Italy.

Written by Monty Waldin

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