The lovely whitewashed town of Gioia del Colle, in the center of Italy’s Puglian heel, is known for being a few things: a production center of fresh cow’s-milk mozzarella, the birthplace of Sylvester Stallone’s father, and the cradle of Primitivo, southern Italy’s equivalent of Zinfandel.
The grape’s origins are Croatian (where it is known as Tribidrag or Crljenak Kastelanski), but it was here in Gioia del Colle that 18th-century monk and botanist Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati selected the variety for its early ripening and called it “Primativo.”
The grape spread to Puglia’s other regions. It took a completely separate path (possibly via Austria) to the United States, where its identity was the subject of debate until the 1990s, when DNA profiling confirmed that Primitivo and Zinfandel are genetically identical.
Yet here’s the twist: Gioia del Colle Primitivos are distinct from those in the rest of Puglia, or anywhere else for that matter. They also defy the dark, chewy, big-Zin image.
“It’s a different biotype,” says Marianna Annio, 49, who launched a small organic producer, Pietraventosa, with her husband in the early 2000s. “In Gioia we have a thinner, more elegant Primitivo.”
Just how elegant? I hadn’t drunk a glass of Primitivo for more than a dozen years. Yet after a few days eating and drinking my way across Gioia, I became a convert to its charms.
The particularity of the tiny Gioia del Colle appellation—which includes 15 producers who make Primitivo to fill less than 60,000 cases—is in its limestone-rich soils and altitude. It sprawls over the Murge Plateau between the Adriatic and Ionian seas at altitudes that can top 1,200 feet. Harvests begin in early September as Puglia’s lowland appellations, like Manduria, are finishing.
The resulting wines can be a couple of degrees lower in alcohol than their lowland counterparts, with a spine of fresh acidity.
Not long ago, throughout Puglia, quality was associated with richness, due to the region's tradition of providing ripe blending wines for northern Europe. A decade ago, some Gioia producers found the freshness of their wines was an impediment to sales.
“In the beginning, we were criticized because our wines were different from other Primitivo,’ says Mariangela Plantamura, 59, a Gioia del Colle native who created Plantamura from her family's vineyards 16 years ago.
These days, a handful of small Gioia producers like Plantamura, Pietraventosa and Cristiano Guttarolo (whose lineup includes an amphora-aged Primitivo) create mouthwatering Primitivos, lively with layers of spice.
They were all inspired to a degree by Manduria wine star Gianfranco Fino. While his reds retail for $50 and up in the United States, prices from Gioia’s new-wave wineries represent bargains—usually at well under $20. But here’s the rub: They are not easy to find.
Guttarolo is one of the few to have a New York importer. Pietraventosa’s Primitivo Allegoria, which retails for about $17, is imported in Virginia and distributed in the Washington, D.C., area. Plantamura wines are found in exactly one state: North Carolina.
“I don’t know why, but people don’t seem to know about Gioia,” says Jay Murrie, owner of Piedmont Wine Imports in Durham, N.C., who stumbled on Plantamura wines on a trip to Puglia six years ago. “It’s a puzzle.”
“It has history and terroir on its side, and it’s the style of Primitivo I like to drink,” he adds. The Gioia versions “are more vibrant and fresh than Primitivos people are used to. They are also lower alcohol and more food-friendly, which seems to be where the market is going.”
Murrie’s job is, of course, to sell wine. But I agree: It is a puzzle.
When it comes to wine, Italy is infinite and lopsided.
Lopsided because we wine lovers might debate the nuances of every hillside and producer in some wine regions, while leaving other meritorious areas (often in southern Italy) in their wilderness.
Sure, very often in our hyper-connected cosmopolitan world, wine comes to you. But sometimes you just have to go to it.