San Marzano Elevates the Status of Primitivo

On the day of my scheduled Skype tasting with Mauro di Maggio, of  San Marzano in Puglia, spring storms were raging in Dallas and I was suffering from what I would later learn was an upper respiratory infection. Not auspicious. Then Skype itself went on the fritz, blacking out our video. But di Maggio graciously forged ahead with an audio-only tasting designed to showcase the depth, elegance, and age-ability of the Primitivo grape. I took the first sip of the lineup, and realized my day was about to improve.

“Puglia is experiencing a winemaking renaissance, with Primitivo rising to the top,” announced di Maggio, who serves as managing director of San Marzano. This cooperative, originally formed in 1962 with just 19 growers, today boasts 1,200 members, making it the leading producer in Puglia. It’s now on a mission to elevate the status of the region’s signature grape, Primitivo.

Primitivo is generally bold and flavorful, and the warm, dry Puglia climate makes it an approachable, everyday wine. But it can be age-worthy, too. “Primitivo is good in its first year,” offered di Maggio, “but it also has a nice evolution.”

Primitivo grapes via Cantine San Marzano

As we talked, we tasted through four wines, the 2013 and 2014 vintages of their Sessantanni and Anniversario 62 offerings. These wines were crafted to be “cru” wines using grapes from San Marzano’s best vineyards, whose 50- to 70-year-old, low-yielding bush vines produce concentrated fruit. “It is not difficult to have color and alcohol,” said di Maggio, of the resulting wines, “but we are looking for freshness. This requires meticulous management of the grapes from vine to bottle.”

Prior to vinification, whole clusters are left to dry for up to two weeks in a ventilated room or, when the weather cooperates as in 2013, even outside in the vineyard. The resulting elegance and finesse was a complete surprise to me — especially given this step that should further concentrate the must. They were unlike any Primitivo I’ve tasted, and deeply reminiscent of Amarone.

Disclaimer: media samples; all thoughts & opinions are my own.

The Sessantanni Primitivo di Manduria DOP illustrates the heights of what Primitivo can achieve. Although 2014 was a difficult vintage in much of Europe, Puglia’s native heat, said di Maggio, proved favorable for them. The 2014 vintage was a lovely wine offering a mix of fresh, jammy, and dried fruits mingling with dried herbs, tobacco, vanilla, and dusty minerality. But the 2013 was exceptional; truly the highest quality Primitivo I’ve yet tasted. The fruit was fresher yet offering dried notes, while the herbs were more pronounced and dried red flowers joined the party. The  tannins were silky and integrated, the acidity was high and round, the finish was long and spicy. This wine was elegant and refined, a true beauty, and still has years ahead of it.

The Anniversario 62 Primitivo di Manduria DOP Riserva was developed to celebrate the founding of San Marzano and designed to “push Primitivo to show different sides of the grape,” said di Maggio. “Offering more complexity, it is the big brother to Sessantanni.” I found it had a very different profile. The 2014 vintage was ripe, bold, and powerful; it wrapped my palate in aged balsamic. It tasted so much like an Amarone, in fact, that I was awed I was drinking a Primitivo. The 2013 vintage of this wine offered the same aged balsamic notes but was more restrained, mixing in fresh herbs and eucalyptus. Its tannins were more pronounced due to its eighteen months in used French and American oak, yet it remained silky and balanced, with high acidity.

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After tasting these four stunning wines, our conversation shifted to the future of the grape in this warm region. Climate change is a key concern of the coop. “We are extreme,” said di Maggio, adding that it’s “becoming very hot for vineyards. But Puglia grapes know how to handle the heat.” Their work now lies in developing clones and rootstocks suited to even warmer temperatures, and they’re embracing digital technology to keep in touch with the vineyards. “Old vine growing styles are reactive,” he said. “Digital is predictive. Reading indexes aids in vine management.” San Marzano is also working with the research center at the University of Bari to explore the best practices of sustainable agriculture to adapt to the changing climate.

via Cantine San Marzano

Primitivo might be perfectly suited to the place, as these wines clearly show. But who knows what the future will bring? “As leaders of the region,” said di Maggio, “we need to go further to find the next autochthonous grapes to develop.”

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