Primitivo: The wine world’s most underrated bestseller

Primitivo is a grape from Italy's southern Puglia region - Franz Lang

Wines go big when a region – or a country – and a grape hit it off and create a stand-out style. Look what happened with Marlborough and sauvignon blanc, with Argentina and malbec, and with the Barossa in Australia and its shiraz. There’s another one that hasn’t been getting as much attention as it might – Puglia and primitivo.

Puglia is the region that takes in the spur and heel of Italy’s boot. It has beautiful coastlines on the Adriatic and Ionian seas; baroque churches; trulli (the stone huts with a cone-shaped roof); hot, dry summers and mild winters. My fingers are already twitching to google flights – and then there’s the food. Olives and wheat are grown there. It’s famed for its almond trees, which blossom in February and March. It has fruit trees – figs, apricots, plums, citrus and peaches. There are tomatoes, aubergines, fish and, of course, pasta. Puglia’s famous pasta shape is orecchiette, the thick, handmade discs squashed between finger and thumb to make a dip and named because they resemble little ears.

And primitivo? Look up this dark-skinned variety in Wine Grapes, by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz – the mother of all reference books – and you get a single, short line: ‘See tribidrag.’ Ah, that well-known grape, tribidrag…

But tribidrag is the oldest name for a variety that originated in Dalmatia in Croatia and has found itself two new spiritual homes and two new names. In California, it is zinfandel and it makes wines that tend to be very high in alcohol with a slightly cough-linctus flavour. Under the sunny skies of Puglia, as primitivo, it can also tend to highish alcohol, though I am seeing more examples with a fresh twist and refreshing acidity. It’s characterised by a full, fleshy flavour – think fresh blueberries, bramble jelly, stewed damsons and purple plums. It may also be vinified with (quite a lot of) oak so to these richly fruity flavours you might add a lick of vanilla and tobacco and a thick spice.

Puglian primitivo is a wine that gives pretty good bounce for the ounce, so it does well in supermarket own-label ranges. Still, I didn’t expect to find that, at Morrisons, primitivo is the biggest-selling red wine in the supermarket’s The Best range, where it outperforms Rioja and Chilean merlot, and pushes even Argentinian malbec into third place. If you’re wondering what comes second, good question. The answer is The Best Douro Red 2022, Portugal (14%, Morrisons, £8.75 down to £7.50 until 18 June), which also shows Morrisons customers to be extremely savvy wine buyers.

But back to primitivo. Supermarket primitivo isn’t usually completely dry. I usually loathe ‘dry’ red wines that come with the equivalent of a spoonful or two of sugar in the bottle. There are a lot of them about, including The Guv’nor, which I cannot stand. In some of these wines, you end up with a horrible clanging collision between any astringent or green notes in the wine and the sugar. With primitivo, it’s different. The tinge of sweetness just makes the dark fruit taste riper, more luscious and more approachable. These bold flavours work well with bold food. They’re particularly good with the caramelised sweetness of fried or roasted red onions, or unctuous aubergine, perhaps on a pizza or in a tomato pasta sauce.

They also work well with chilli spice: think ’nduja or spicy barbecued short ribs.

Try these...


Cantine de Falco Primitivo 2022, Italy

13%, Lea & Sandeman, £12.95

Another winner; this primitivo tastes of luscious dark berries and damsons. A lovely wine.

The Best Primitivo 2021, Italy

13.5%, Morrisons, £8.75

All bramble jelly and blueberries, this Puglian red from Cantine San Marzano is superb value.

Specially Selected Primitivo di Manduria 2022, Italy

14%, Aldi, £9.99

Not shy, this one. It’s big and spicy with notes of chocolate and sweet-sour liquorice/liquorice root. One for food, not to drink as an aperitif.