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Excellence on a Big Frame: Primitivo di Manduria
By Jim Clarke
Dec 11, 2018
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In my last column for Wine Review Online, I addressed an effort by producers in the Languedoc to keep up with the apparent trend toward fresher, lower-alcohol wines by adjusting their blends, exploring different appellations, and so forth.  Overall, I think this is a good thing, but we should never forget that fresher, etc., is not the only way to make wine.  When your grape variety and growing conditions demand richness and power, sometimes it’s advisable to let them go for it.  Such is the case with Primitivo in Puglia.

Puglia, as the heel of the Italian boot, is a peninsula, so a maritime influence is part of the calculation there, but it’s still one of the hotter, drier places to grow wine grapes.  Trying too hard to rein in the warmth and the sun, as expressed through the wines as alcohol, would in a way be working against the very terroir.

Primitivo as a grape also lends itself to richness, ripening early and typically with a lot of sugar.  “Primitivo loves the heat; it loves the seaside,” says Adriano Pasculli, Executive Director of the Primitivo di Manduria Consorzio.  “It gets its sugars and flavors from the heat.”  It was actually preferred historically to other varieties because it ripened earlier, so harvesting it didn’t interfere or coincide with the olive harvest.

Between the climate and variety, it’s common enough for these wines to reach the mid to high teens in alcohol, so much so that several producers identify particular bottlings by their alcohol percentage.  Cantolio di Manduria makes three such wines: 14, 16, and 17.  So they’re not hiding the fact that these are big wines; one could even say they celebrate it, given that the 17 is considered the top-end, higher-priced selection of the three.

What these wines prove is that high alcohol wines are not necessarily imbalanced.  It definitely requires a commitment to good viticulture and winemaking, but one of the pleasant aspects of Primitivo is that it delivers a lot of flavor, matching the alcohol with richness and fruit.  When well-managed in the vineyard and the winery, one typically finds a mix of red and dark fruit in these wines, along with well-integrated tannins.  When things go awry, they can be stewy and rustic.  The flavors in these cases may still be rich enough to stand up to the alcohol, but they lack in vibrancy and clarity.

Puglia is dominated by cooperatives, which can have a tough time turning their farmer members toward new ways of thinking, but the region is seeing a lot of development nonetheless.  San Marzano for example, has brought in a highly trained agronomist who also speaks the local dialect, allowing them to convey to their farmers what is needed while still keeping things local.  As in other parts of the world, there is a patrimony of low-yielding (6-8 tons/ha), old vine vineyards that more and more producers are coming to appreciate.

Primitivo di Manduria isn’t the only place where high-alcohol is an accepted fact; regions like Priorat and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are well-respected despite the potency of their wines.  As we move away from the so-called international style, where weight and extract were expected from most wines, regardless of origin or variety, it’s natural that regions which can produce lighter, nimbler wines be celebrated for doing so.  That doesn’t mean that we should be neglecting regions that produce big wines for the good reason that the local terroir makes them what they are.  Primitivo di Manduria and these others come by their size and alcohol honestly, from the vineyard, not the marketing department.  As such, they place a pin to remind us where that edge of the map of wine styles lies, lest it be forgotten.

Some recommended wines:  (All are Primitivo di Manduria DOP or Primitivo di Manduria Riserva DOP.  The latter are 100% Primitivo, whereas the former allow up to 20% other grape varieties).  I’ve restricted my recommendations to producers imported into the U.S.  Other producers to look for abroad would include Cantolio do Manduria, Cantine Paolo Leo, and Bosco.

San Marzano "Talo" 2016.  Made with 20-30-year-old vines, this is a straightforward but clean expression of Primitivo, with plenty of generous raspberry jam notes and good structure and length.

San Marzano "Sessantanni" 2015.  Older vines, averaging 60 years.  Weightier and denser with raspberry and earthy touches on the nose.  More fruit -- black cherry, prune -- comes through on the palate.  Full and grippy.

San Marzano "Anniversario 62" 2015.  A single vineyard wine which spends 18 months in a mix of French and American oak.  Shows milk chocolate and baking spice aromas over deep, ripe fruit -- black currants, blackberry, black raspberry.  Generous, rich, and rounded on the palate.  Tannins are ripe and soft.

Produttori di Manduria "Lirica" 2016.  Red fruit dominates, with strawberry jam notes and floral touches.  Well-structured with fine, firm tannins and a lengthy finish.

Produttori di Manduria "Elegia" 2014.  Shows generous black raspberry and black cherry notes.  Rich and lush, but not heavy; underlying structure and acidity keep it nimble.  Slightly bitter on the finish.

Masca del Tacco "Li Filetti" 2014.  Cassis, black cherry, and blueberry up front, with some chocolatey notes and graphite coming through on the palate.  Full and smooth, with good length.

Masca del Tacco "Piano Chiuso" Riserva 2015.  Generous, with black cherry cola, licorice and touches of cocoa powder.  Big and bold, with ripe tannins and good length.