Primitivo is a red grape variety grown principally in Apulia (Puglia) in southern Italy. The first documented use of the term Primitivo appears in Italian governmental records of the 1870s. The name derives from the terms 'primativus' or 'primaticcio', which refer to the grape's tendency to ripen earlier than other varieties.
Primitivo is now thought to have been introduced as a distinct clone into the Apulia region of Italy in the 18th century. Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati, the priest of the church at Gioia del Colle near Bari, selected an early (primo) ripening plant of the Zagarese variety and planted it in Liponti. This clone ripened at the end of August and became widespread throughout northern Puglia.
Zinfandel long considered 'America's vine and wine', but when University of California, Davis (UCD) professor Austin Goheen visited Italy in 1967, he noticed how wine made from Primitivo reminded him of Zinfandel.
In 1993, Meredith used DNA fingerprinting to confirm that Primitivo and Zinfandel are clones of the same variety. Comparative field trials have found that Primitivo selections were generally superior to those of Zinfandel, having earlier fruit maturity, similar or higher yield, and similar or lower rot susceptibility.
The European Union recognized Zinfandel as a synonym for Primitivo in January 1999, meaning that Italian Primitivos can be labelled as Zinfandel in the USA and any other country that recognises EU labelling laws.
Most Primitivo is grown in Puglia (Apulia), the 'heel' of Italy. Historically, the grape was fermented and shipped north to Tuscany and Piedmont where it was used as a blending grape to enhance the body of thin red wines produced. This wine is also characterized by an unusually high alcohol by volume - around 14%.
Wines made from Primitivo have notes of red plum and spice, like Zinfandel, but because of different growing soils and climate, the fruit character is less jammy, and the structure is more akin to old world wines, with rustic earth notes and spice.