What’s In A Grape? Primitivo

Primitivo (pronounced pree-muh-tee-vow) is a red wine grape most commonly grown in Puglia, the heel of the boot-shaped part of Italy. If you love Californian Zinfandel, then this is the grape for you! Why? Because Primitivo is actually the exact same grape as Zinfandel, the only difference being where the grape is grown. Let’s take a closer look at this unique, full-bodied grape (it’s one of our favourites).

Here’s what you’ll find in this article:

What is Primitivo?
Is Primitivo the Same as Zinfandel?
What Does Primitivo Taste Like?
Where is Primitivo Grown?
Three Styles of Primitivo from Puglia
What to Pair with Primitivo?
How to Choose a Good Primitivo

What is Primitivo?

Primitivo is a variety of Italian red wine grape that produces full-bodied, fruit-forward wines with tannins that will make your mouth pucker. Contrary to what it suggests, the name Primitivo doesn’t actually translate to “primitive,” but means “early ripening” or “early one” – because the grapes tend to ripen earlier than most other varieties grown in Italy.

The berries ripen unevenly, so the bunches must be left on the vine for the grapes to fully ripen. This results in high sugar in the grapes and ultimately, a relatively high alcohol content in the wine.

Did you know?

Tempranillo also means “early ripening,” but in Spanish.

Is Primitivo the Same as Zinfandel?

Yes, Primitivo is the same grape as Zinfandel. Primitivo is the name for the grape when it is grown in Italy, and Zinfandel is the name for the same grape when it is grown in California. Interestingly, the grape didn’t originate in Italy or California, but in Croatia! 

The Primitivo grape was brought from Croatia to Italy in the 18th century, where it found its new home in Puglia. In the 19th century, the grape made another voyage, this time to America, where it was rebranded as “Zinfandel.” In California, Primitivo grapes are also used to make “White Zinfandel” – a popular sweet rosé.

Did you know?

Primitivo (aka. Zinfandel) has other names too! In Croatia, it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski and as Tribidrag. And in Montenegro, it’s called kratošija. Try saying “Crljenak Kaštelanski” (pronounced tsurl-ye-nak kas-tel-yanskee) three times fast!

What Does Primitivo Taste Like?

Primitivo wines tend to be high in alcohol content and contain ripe, sweet tannins! It is a big, bold grape known for flavours ranging from jammy and ripe dark berry flavours, like blueberry and blackberry, to sweet and spicy, like chocolate and cinnamon, to savoury and earthy, like leather and pipe tobacco. If you enjoy Zinfandel or Merlot, you’ll love to taste a Primitivo from Italy!

Where is Primitivo Grown?

Primitivo is grown in the Puglia region of Italy, of course! But that’s not the only place. Primitivo actually covers about 46,000 acres of land worldwide (that’s about the size of Aruba – can you tell we are dreaming of a vacation?), with the majority of that area (93 percent) of that being in the form of Zinfandel in California. There are approximately 2,500 acres of Primitivo in Italy, and 250 acres of Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia (100 acres is about the size of Vatican City, for comparison).

Did you know?

Primitivo is the third-most planted grape in Puglia, behind Sangiovese and Negroamaro.

Growing Primitivo in Italy


Puglia rests on a plateau, unlike the rest of Italy, which is primarily mountainous. The land is composed of plains and low hills. Acidity is maintained by cooling winds that blow across the plains between the Ionian and Adriatic seas, located on either side of the “boot heel” that is Puglia. The land is characterized by cavernous eroded limestone and underground rivers. The thin layer of topsoil is rich in minerals, and the vine roots extend down into the eroded limestone. These minerals give the wine lots of structure and mouth-watering tannins.

Growing Primitivo (Zinfandel) in the USA

Napa Valley Floor

Historic vineyards which have survived over 100 years (even through Prohibition) produce full-bodied aromatic wines characterized by dark fruit flavours and black pepper. These wines are often quite complex due to their deep root systems pulling minerals from the rock formations below. Zinfandel from Napa Valley tends to be higher in acidity and tannins, which means you can age them with the best.

Zinfandel vineyards in Napa Valley

Napa Valley Hills

In contrast to wines grown on the Napa Valley Floor, those grown in the Napa Hillside are exposed to cooler temperatures, leading to a higher acidity. The vines are old, like in other areas of California, so the root systems go deep. These wines tend to have a spicier, earthier flavour profile – think cayenne pepper and tobacco.


Love Merlot? Then you definitely need to try a Zinfandel from Sonoma. These wines are characterized by chocolatey mocha and five-spice flavours. They are softer and lusher than some other Zinfandels on the market due to the cooler (and foggier) temperatures in the Sonoma region.


There’s a large, flat region in the central valley of California. This is called the Lodi wine region. It’s the location of the major commercial wineries in California, so many different grape varieties are grown here. Among these, you will find Zinfandel! Lodi Zinfandels are very rich, with dark raspberry and mocha notes.

Sierra Foothills

Looking for a super jammy Zinfandel? Look for one from the Sierra Foothills. This region is warmer, so the grapes grown here develop more ripe red fruit flavours (like raspberry and strawberry) and tend to have a higher alcohol content.

Mendocino Ridge

High-altitude, cool-climate vineyards spot the mountains only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Significant diurnal shifts result in deliciously balanced wines with high acidity and complex flavours, with bramble fruit notes. These vineyards were planted in the late 1800s and were kept running throughout Prohibition due to the pioneer families’ dedication and production of bootleg wines. 

Did you know?
Mendocino Ridge is nicknamed “Islands of the sky” because it is a non-continuous wine region high up in the mountains, above the fog line. 

Paso Robles

An incredibly diverse region in terms of terroir. The rainfall can range from 254 mm to 1016 mm per year, depending on the elevation, ranging from 700 feet to 2400 feet above sea level. This means Zinfandel from this region is also diverse in flavour profile, but generally, they are more floral than those from other Californian regions. 

Zinfandel vines in Paso Robles

Growing Primitivo (Crljenak Kaštelanski/Tribidrag) in Croatia

Dalmatian Coast

In Croatia, most Tribidrag has been replaced by the grape’s child variety, Plavac Mali, but in recent years more Tribidrag has been reintroduced into the region. It has lower tannins than Plavac Mali and develops delicious berry and spice notes when grown here.

What to Pair with Primitivo?

Primitivo is extremely versatile and will pair well with a variety of dishes. The tannins and acidity make it very food-friendly, but we are partial to pairing it with hearty foods – especially tomato-based dishes. Try it with your favourite pizza on a weeknight, a spaghetti bolognese the next time you feel like Italian, a lentil stew on a rainy day, or even barbecued hamburgers at your next block party! 

Glass of red wine (Zinfandel) with foods

Three Styles of Primitivo from Puglia

So, we’ve piqued your interest, and you want to know more about Primitivo from Puglia? We knew it! Three DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) produce Primitivo wines that each have unique characteristics. These are:

  • Manduria
    Primitivo wines from Manduria are rich. The region is at a very low altitude, close to the sea and experiences warm temperatures, which gives these wines robust flavour and higher alcohol content.
  • Gioia del Colle
    Wines from Gioia del Colle are fresh. The region is located on a flat plateau which experiences a large diurnal shift, which gives these wines a balanced acidity unique to this region. 
  • Salento
    Salento Primitivo wines are dry. The region is also located at a lower altitude, along the Ionian Sea, but here the coastal influence leads to higher tannin and less alcohol than in Manduria.
Zinfandel vineyards in Puglia

What’s a DOC?

If you’ve been learning more about Italian wines, then you’ve probably seen the abbreviation DOC. But what does that mean? It stands for ‘Denominazione di Origine Controllata’ which, put simply, is a classification system for Italian wines. The system classifies wines based on where they are grown and how they are made. If a wine has a DOC classification, it guarantees that that wine follows specific quality standards.

How to Choose a Good Primitivo

Having trouble finding the perfect Primitivo? Shopping for wine can be overwhelming – but that’s why we’re here! Sign up for a wine subscription from WineCollective, and you’ll receive a curated selection of amazing wines from around the world – every month. We often feature Primitivo and Zinfandel, so you’ll get to explore some excellent selections. Members even get 15-50 percent off the retail price of bottles in the store

Looking for a Primitivo? Try this Coppi Peucetico Primitivo straight from Puglia! Members save 21 percent off retail!

Looking for a Zinfandel? Try this Integration Red – an invigorating blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel from California. Members get 20 percent off retail on this gem!

Join WineCollective Today!