What the heck is Primitivo?

Despite quite a few years of formally studying wine, chronicled in this blog as well as in other places, the answer to the above question eluded me for some time. I think the reason for that may be that many — including some in the industry, aren’t really sure of the answer. In fact, I’ve listened to people argue this point at length without any real sources to back up their arguments. So, this morning, briefly and in celebration of last night’s dinner, I’m going to tackle this question in a way I hope is useful.


For a long time I’d been told that Primitivo is the same thing as Zinfandel; that the former word is the Italian name while the latter is the American, and that they are synonymous. This is close, but it’s not true.  It would be like saying that Iowa and Kansas are the same thing — granted, I can’t really tell them apart, but technically they are different.

Both grapes, Primitivo and Zinfandel, are actually clones of a Croatian grape known as Crljenak.  These grape clones are so incredibly similar that it generally requires DNA testing to tell them apart, but they are in fact slightly different. This explains those rare wines that claim to be a Zinfandel/Primitivo blend.  American wine laws require the two to be distinguished on the label, but Italian law, which is slightly more lax, does not. There is a push in the US right now to allow them to be called the same thing, which is an indicator of just how similar they are, but to my knowledge that push hasn’t gotten anywhere. So, to recap, both Zinfandel, prominent in Califonian wine regions such as Napa, Lake County, and Lodi, and Primitivo, often called Primitivo di Manduria for the region of Puglia in southern Italy from whence it hails, can trace their lineage back across the Adriatic sea to Croatia, where Diocletian surely once enjoyed sipping from a golden chalice full of Crljenak.


I opened a bottle to pair with dinner last night; Sonja had made spaghetti with meatballs, salad, and broccoli. I intended to review the wine, but something wasn’t quite right. The last time I had this wine, a few years back, it had been silky smooth despite the 15% ABV that makes it a rather odd bottle from Italy to say the least. Further, it had been chocolatey and laced in gorgeous black fruits. This wine was something of a punch in the palate, rich but reduced, strong yet no longer smooth. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I sipped and ate and tried to help Zooey, who had decided to sit by me last night, not to spill the water from her big girl cup, talked to Titus about his day, sang along to the Frozen soundtrack, and didn’t really dwell upon the wine much further. Later, however, when a somm friend stopped by so that we could trade a few bottles of wine, I offered him a taste. He marveled at the heft of the bottle for a moment and we both sipped. It didn’t take him long.

“This wine is flawed,” he said.

“You’re certain?” I asked, partly annoyed by an expensive bottle being flawed, partly relieved that I wasn’t crazy for not enjoying it as much as I thought I should.

“Yeah, for sure. It tastes like MSG,” he replied.

“Madison Square Garden?” I tried.

“Er, ha ha, yeah, no, monosodium glutamate.”

“Ohhh, right,” I said, in a way that clearly indicated that I have no idea what that is.

Be sure to tune in next time, when I tackle “What the heck is monosodium glutamate?” here on Itheewine.com.  As always, thanks for reading. Enjoy your weekend!





5 responses to “What the heck is Primitivo?

  1. MSG is an additive used for meats, you may remember ACCENT, but can be used as a preservative, much like winemakers use sulfites. MSG may even be a class of sulfites, I don’t know. But for a wine to have that taste certainly does mean it is “flawed.” And that would be the polite word for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Conscientious Consumer in Quarantine: Zinfandel Edition | itheewine·

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