Passion For Primitivo

    I was entertaining out-of-town visitors last week, and discharged my hosting duties with great aplomb by taking them to a nice Italian restaurant with an impressive wine list.

    Our mustachioed server was from the island of Sicily, which if The Godfather movies have taught me anything, is home to voluptuous vixens, violent vendettas, and valuable vinos.

    Unsurprisingly, the restaurant had a large selection of Italian wines, including several from Sicily, which has long been a favourite of your humble narrator.

    For those not in the know, Sicily is home to the Primitivo grape, a rich and full-bodied red wine, bursting with flavours of fresh figs, baked blackberries, and even dried leather.

    Unlike what you may suspect, the Primitivo grape does not translate to the English word primitive, but means early-ripening, because the Primitivo grape produces and stores plenty of sugars early in the season, which results in a luscious fruit-forward finish.

    While the grape was made famous in Sicily, its true origins lie just across the Adriatic Sea, where it had the unpronounceable name of Crljenak Kaštelanski in its native Croatia.

    The grape flourished in the Mediterranean for centuries, migrating to other parts of Italy and neighbouring countries. The grape even found its way to California in the 1850s, where it became known as Zinfandel.

    The Zinfandel grape was a runaway success in California, and is now considered the signature grape of the Californian wine industry. Interestingly, it was not until 1972 that genetic testing revealed that Zinfandel and Primitivo were the same grape.

    Today, the Zinfandel grape is the third most commonly planted grape in California, although it has a lingering reputation as a low-cost bulk wine.

    The Italian producers have jumped at the opportunity for increased awareness of the Primitivo / Zinfandel grape, which has resulted in much higher exports to the North American market, in no small part because the Primitivo grapes from Sicily enjoy a higher stature in the eternally snobby world of wine.

    I can still recall with dread my first bottle of California Zinfandel, priced at a whopping $6/bottle at a Las Vegas buffet, and that experience put me off the Zinfandel grape for many years.

    It was not until I sampled a bottle of Primitivo from Sicily that I realized the grape was capable of much more complexity and flavour, and the cheap Californian Zinfandel was an affront to the good name of the grape.
    Fortunately, the Californian wine industry has upped its game in recent years, partially due to competition from Italy. While it is still possible to find cheap and tawdry Zinfandel for those who enjoy that sort of thing, the winemakers in the Napa Valley have learned a few lessons from the long history of the Primitivo grape in Sicily, and trying to emulate that terroir for the higher-end Zinfandel.

    Since I was dining in an Italian restaurant, there was a wealth of different Primitivo options on the menu, and your humble narrator made sure to order three different bottles over the course of the evening, all in the name of research, of course.

    My favourite was the Borgata Primitivo di Puglia, an which poured a dark and inky red into the glass, with bright berry notes on the nose, and a long velvety finish that paired well with pasta and parmesan. While pricey at the restaurant, this wine is under $20 at your local bottle shop, and worth every penny.

    My dining companions couldn’t get enough of the Layer Cake Primitivo, which is one of the most popular Primitivo wines in Canada. At bit pricier at just under $30, this wine was definitely the most complex that we enjoyed over dinner.

    More tannic than other Primitivo wines, the Layer Cake had a full and robust mouth feel, with notes of espresso and truffle on the tongue, bright fruits on the nose, and a spicy finish. This wine would pair particularly well with pastas containing tomato sauce and spicy sausage.

    Fortunately, the Primitivo grape is very flexible, and can be picked early in the season to produce brighter and more tropical fruit flavours, or left to ripen longer to develop a more complex palate. With the majority of the Primitivo wines available in Alberta priced at $16-$25, you can try several to find your favourite!