Primitivo (aka Zinfandel)

The Grape

Primitivo is a grape varietal primarily grown in Italy’s Puglia region (in the heel of the boot). It is also grown in California and Washington.

 In 1967, Austin Goheen, plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Professor at the University of California at Davis, was the first academic to realize that Primitivo and Zinfandel could be identical varieties. By 1994, collaboration between UC Davis and Italy’s Experimental Viticultural Institute of Conegliano brought definitive proof that the two varieties were genetically identical. Further research culminated in 2003’s genetic analysis that Italy’s Primitivo, the United States’ Zinfandel, and Croatia’s Crljenak kaštelanski/Pribidrag (now known as Tribidrag) all share the same DNA profile.

Adriatic Sea map courtesy of

The three clonal lines for the variety have evolved independently over time. A 2005 research report from a 2000 to 2003 study of Zinfandel and Primitivo plants in Fresno, California concluded that Primitivo ripened earlier, had similar or higher yield, and had similar or lower susceptibility to sour rot.

Croatia to Italy

In the 18th century, the grapes were brought across the Adriatic Sea from Croatia to Italy where they were planted and studied by a priest, Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati. Because the Tribidrag grapes ripened earlier than other varietals, he named them Primitivo, which translates to “first one”. (It is worthwhile to note that the Croatian name “Tribidrag” is derived from a Greek phrase meaning “early ripening”.) The grapes easily thrived in Puglia’s climate and became the most commonly planted varietal in the region.

Arrival in the United States

Horticulturist, George Gibbs, imported the Tribidrag varietal from the Austrian Imperial Nursery collection to the East Coast of the United States in the 1820s. At that time, the Austrian Empire ruled the kingdom of Hungary, which included Croatia.

Merriam-Webster suggests that the name Zinfandel was first used in 1858 and is probably a modification of the obsolete and misapplied Hungarian tzinifándli, czirifandli, which referred to an Austrian white wine grape, Zierfandler.

Used as a table grape, Zinfandel was not recognized for its wine potential until it arrived in California, most likely around the time of the Gold Rush during the 1850s. Zinfandel was recognized as an exceptional grape variety for wine making in California in the 1880s and by 1884, it is estimated that Zinfandel accounted for half of California’s vineyards.

The Wine

Primitivo produces medium to full bodied wine that is notable for its intensity and complexity of fruit flavors and often contain a “jammy” component in both bouquet and flavor. The berries’ high sugar content tend to produce higher alcohol wines. (It’s a good idea to check the ABV on the label.)

As always, fermentation choices provide the foundation of the desired wine style while the selection of aging vessels influence the presence of tannins and smoothness of the wine.

Filling amphora with Primitivo
Filling the amphora with Primitivo

Dolio Winery’s Primitivo

With Primitivo in our wine menu, Dolio Winery can offer a full array of red Italian wines that range from bright, medium bodied wines to deep, smooth, full-bodied wines. Our first experience with Primitivo in 2014 vintage resulted in a Double Gold Award from the Seattle Wine Awards.

Our 2016 Primitivo is available as of this post. Our style highlights dried fig and raisins while brimming with jammy cherry notes. The deep, smooth finish features hints of white pepper. It may remind some of port wine.

To date, all of our released Primitivo wines have been through extensive barrel aging in American Oak barrels. These barrels help to accentuate the pairability with foods that are robust like BBQ pork. Equally delicious, the vanilla barrel overtones prefectly complement fudgy chocolate desserts.

Dolio Primitivo on Tasting Room wall
Dolio Winery’s 2016 Primitivo

Future vintages of Dolio Winery’s Primitivo include 2017, 2018 (aged in amphora), and a small batch from a temperamental 2019 vineyard year.