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Raccolta Selections: Primitivo

Raccolta Selections: Primitivo
Torre Quarto Tarabuso and Leone de Castris Santera

At this time of year grills across the nation are filled with steaks, chops and ribs of Flintstonian proportions. Such basic carnivorous meals have a certain primitive appeal. Perhaps that's why primitivo from Puglia makes a perfect match for charcoal-grilled meats - a big chunky wine for big chucks of meat.

Primitivo is not about finesse. When made well it produces a rich, intensely fruity wine of moderate tannins. Primitivo is for pleasure now: not for analysis, debate or hoarding away in your cellar for years. There is nothing wrong with pleasure now, right? The problem with primitivo is that it is always generous: even before it becomes wine. The generous nature of this vine and the warm sunshine of Puglia means that many producers let it over-produce and end up making a wine that is a shadow of what is can become in the hands of winemakers reaching towards quality over quantity.

Then there is the zinfandel problem. Some time ago scientists announced that zinfandel and primitivo were one in the same: genetically identical. Unfortunately this led to an identity crisis in Puglia with producers diving headlong into California style winemaking with some even changing their labels to read zinfandel instead of primitivo. Thanks to the work of grapevine geneticist Carole Meredith, we now know that both zinfandel and primitivo trace their parentage to an indigenous Croatian grape called crljenak. However, they are more likely very close cousins than exactly the same vine. Primitivo and zinfandel arrived in both California and Puglia at more or less the same time meaning zinfandel probably did not come to the USA from Italy. So, although they share the same parentage, centuries in their respective climates has created two unique strains of crljenak - not twins.

While most primitivo is bottled under the Puglia IGT, the Manduria zone has been recognized as producing primitivo worthy of a DOC. This is not to say that primitivo is always superior to those labeled Puglia IGT because it is not and excellent primitivo can be found in many vineyards outside the DOC.

These two selections show the broad range of styles being produced in Puglia today. The more modern Torre Quarto might trick your friends into thinking they were drinking a California zinfandel, but the Leone di Castris could come from nowhere but Puglia.

2003 Torre Quarto Tarabuso, Primitivo, Puglia IGT ($15)
A bright and brilliant deep ruby. Just translucent. Smooth raspberry fruit dominates the nose that is layered with touches of cherry vanilla and cassis. The cassis note continues on the palate giving a rich bitter touch to the rich, warm raspberry and cherry flavors. Medium, round ripe tannins give just enough structure to the deeply fruity finish, but not enough to require additional aging. A nice touch of bitterness makes the ripe fruit flavors more enjoyable. Very modern in style.

2001 Leone di Castris, Santera, Primitivo di Manduria DOC ($15)
Bright light ruby with just a touch of garnet. Just translucent. Expansive, dense bouquet with fresh cherry pie aromas mixed with ripe plums, sautéed mushrooms and hints of iodine and rosemary. Round and ripe on the palate with lively bitterness balancing the ripe, earthy fruit flavors. The sweet rich dark fruit finish is supported by medium tannins and a firm mineral note.

2000 Leone di Castris, Salice Salentino, Riserva ($17) Bright ruby with just a touch of garnet. Earthy, smoky nose with dense bitter cherry aromas. Good complexity and balance on the palate with hints of tar blending with a ripe Mediterranean earthiness. The finish is very long with many layers of complexity ranging from sweet cherry to a tobacco bite. This is a wine to drink now or in the next year or two as a little more bottle age is sure to add complexity.

2001 Leone di Castris, Salice Salentino, Maiana ($12) Bright ruby, just translucent. The nose is full of forward, earthy fruit with a touch of warm Mediterranean sun. On the palate the wine is multifaceted showing bright fresh cherry fruit with a touch of dried mushrooms and a bitter minty note. The finish is balanced with medium tannins well carried by the ripe fruit. Ready to drink now.

Exceptional wines from Italian vines

Grape: Greco - an ancient white wine variety probably of Greek origin grown in Italy for over 2,000 years.
2003 Torre Quarto, Hirondelle, Greco, Puglia IGT ($15) Brilliant medium gold showing just the slightest hint of bubbles at the edge. Beautiful ripe pear and lychee aromas with touches of honey and hazelnuts. Those gorgeous flavors expand on the palate into a rich, but lively and fresh wine. The finish is very long and expansive, but also refreshing from the touch of tart acidity, nutty bitterness and barely perceptible touch of effervescence. No oak is used so all the luscious flavors come from the greco grape itself.