fascinating report about our Fatalone Primitivos!
Massaging Primitivo with music therapy
Written by Walter Speller for Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages | June 2018
Last March I found myself in London at the same time as Pasquale Petrera of the Puglian estate
Fatalone. He was there to present a flight of Primitivo going all the way back to their first official
bottling of 1988, with two even older vintages, bottled for family use only, 1981 and 1977. From
the start of the presentation, organised by Doug Wregg of UK importer Les Caves de Pyrène, it
was clear that Petrera was on a mission: to show that Primitivo (the variety known as Zinfandel
in California) can age. In his case more than 30 years. ‘We want to show how Primitivo
performs’, Petrera exclaimed, ‘and I’m very much against the idea that it needs to be drunk
within five years’.
That Primitivo has the capacity not just to survive in bottle but gain in complexity is not a given.
Most exported examples are full-throttle, fruit-driven, ready-to-drink wines with quite a bit of
alcohol. Most of it comes at very convenient prices simply because there is so much of the stuff.
Italy’s plantings of Primitivo total 12,000 ha (3,000 acres) at the last count in 2010. The
abundance of vines producing the raw material for a huge number of bargain bottles makes it
hard for producers to invest in higher quality, which also obscures the fact that Primitivo is much nobler than its low-cost reputation would have you believe.
Primitivo has been planted all over Puglia, but historic documents from the eighteenth century
plants it firmly in Gioia del Colle, a series of rolling hills south of Bari. It comes originally from
across the Adriatic (see The politics of Zin). Fatalone’s history begins at the end of the
nineteenth century when Petrera’s great-grandfather, Nicola Petrera, decided to plant Primitivo
in the highest, windiest parts of the Gioia del Colle in the contrada of Gaudella. With thirty
bottled vintages behind them, the fifth generation now running the estate has transformed it
into a reference point not only for long-lived, complex Primitivo but also for organic viticulture.
Fatalone is one of the first Italian estates to be carbon-neutral, with all the energy they need
supplied by solar panels.
While Puglia is readily associated with a very warm, southern climate, Fatalone’s vineyards are
on the highest point of the Gioia del Colle hills at almost 400 m (1,310 ft) and about 50 km (30
miles) from the coast. ‘Between our hill top and the sea there is nothing higher and hence the
coastal breezes have a mitigating influence on temperature’, Petrera explained. ‘The vineyard
soil, high in limestone and with a portion of water-retaining clay, results in the wine’s elegance,
and [provides evidence] against the idea that southern Italian wines are fruit bombs. Primitivo is
very sensitive because of its thin skin. This is the key for all the decisions we make, either in
vineyard or cellar.
Primitivo has a tendency to pass quickly from perfectly ripe to overripe. This is why the last
grapes they pick have always dried naturally on the vine. But this is in no way undesirable
according to Petrera. If not more than 20–30% of them are added to the fermentation tank, then
the result is not a stewed character but Primitivo’s most essential aroma, that of toasted
almond. ‘You notice a long, bitter taste on the palate long after you have swallowed the wine.
This is a typical characteristic of Primitivo from Gioia del Colle’, averred Petrera, who claims that
truly overripe fruit doesn’t display the almond character, just stewed fruit.
Primitivo’s other peculiarity is that its secondary buds are fertile. The bunches that grow from
these buds are not cut off, as is normally the case, but left on the vine. Petrera called these
bunches ‘key fruit’, because once the main bunches are perfectly ripe, the vines will no longer
transport nutrition and water to these bunches, but to the secondary fruit, which become the
raw material for a more-than-decent rosato. ‘They [the secondary crop] are a certain control on
the main crop, and we preserve acidity’, Petrera explained. At between 6 and 6.7 g/l, the natural
total acidity is exceptionally high for a red wine, not just one from the south, and brings out
Primitivo’s rarely seen vibrant side.
At the beginning of the flight of wines he presented, Petrera pointed out that during
fermentation they do not keep the wine for very long on the skins. With the alcohol easily
reaching 15%, the skins would completely dissolve, but the total maceration time is still a
remarkably long two to three weeks. He doesn’t believe in ageing the wine in new oak,
preferring used Slavonian casks of around 7 hl instead. ‘Oak will only smother Primitivo’s
delicate aromas’. The wines are fermented by indigenous yeasts and aged for only 12 months in
cask. Any longer would lead to premature oxidation of the wine, according to Petrera. But this
risk of premature oxidation is not inherent in the variety itself but is apparently the effect of too
much ‘music therapy’.
During those 12 months Petrera pampers his wines with ‘soft new age and classical music
enriched with sounds of nature (wind, rain, leaf movements, water flowing and chirping of
birds), based on the idea that these soft vibrations improve the activity of the microflora present
in the wine and support its breathing when in casks.’ (This is how Fatalone’s website describes
I know, I thought the same, but the idea is not as insane as it may sound at first. Petrera has
studied physics and has a keen interest in sound waves. He explained that the sound waves of
classical music are a kind of massage of the wines, in which the casks become a sort of
membrane and this massage magnifies the micro-oxygenation. This is the reason Petrera
doesn’t leave the wines any longer than 12 months in cask. He mentioned that to prove it he
once conducted an experiment with two casks of the same wine, one with and one without
music therapy, and they turned out differently. He did, however, admit that the difference could
not be explained by the presence or absence of music alone.
Whatever the effect of sound waves, the 16 wines below more than convinced me of the ageing
capacity of Primitivo as well as its complexity, provided it is in the right hands.
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2012 Gioia del Colle Quite dusty nose of herb liqueur and damson.
Quite intense plum palate with a good dose of acidity and plenty of dusty tannins. Hints of tar
indicating some development. (WS)15% Drink 2015-2026
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2011 Gioia del Colle Brooding, sweet nose of carob and cherry
liqueur. The palate has real succulence to it and is a little vibrant with damson and fig on the
finish and bags of crunchy tannins. (WS)15% Drink 2016-2028
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2010 Gioia del Colle Expressive, complex nose of damson and
prunes with hints of spice camphor, shoe polish. Strawberry and plum palate with energetic
acidity and firm, coating tannins. Great balance and length, and truly elegant with the alcohol
virtually unnoticeable. Vibrant acidity. (WS)15% Drink 2014-2030
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2009 Gioia del Colle‘ was an experiment for us. Against
common sense, we left some of the bunches on the vine to botrytise.’ That part, around 20%,
was fermented separately and later blended with the rest.
Concentrated yet brooding and not as open as the 2010. Liquorice, plum and lead pencil, with
a touch of leather, but adds rather than distracts. Intense and compact, ripe palate with a
perfect dose of acidity and lots of powdery tannins. Very complete. (WS)15% Drink 2015-2030
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2007 Gioia del Colle You would have a hard time distinguishing
between 2008 and 2007’, which is why in this flight they excluded 2008.
Developed nose of plums, prune and shoe polish and minerally too. Huge depth and
complexity and very distinct and unusual. Liquorice and prune fruit succulent acidity. Minerally
finish with fine, coating tannins. (WS)15% Drink 2014-2028
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2006 Gioia del Colle Very warm vintage and also completely dry
Dusty nose showing some development, chalky plum and chinotto. Liquorice and dried
strawberry and prune all tied together by juicy acidity. Lots of chewy tannins complements the
whole. (WS)15% Drink 2012-2028
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2005 Gioia del Colle Normally harvest doesn’t start before the
second week in September, and no rains are expected before the third, but in 2005 they had
rain just before the harvest and cooler than average temperatures throughout the season.
Chinotto and Barolo chinato. Oxidative dark fruit nose, but doesn’t affect the wine’s
complexity. A little lighter and with the acidity clearly showing through, while being less
integrated, and really taking centre stage. (WS)15% Drink 2008-2020
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2004 Gioia del Colle Beautiful depth. Notes of dried fig and prunes
with undergrowth and a touch of tar. Lifted acidity pushing a fragrant damson palate. Just
medium bodied, elegant and with soft tannins. No great intensity on the finish, but truly long
and fragrant. (WS)15% Drink 2008-2024
● Fatalone, Primitivo Riserva 2003 Gioia del Colle A heady nose of herb liqueur with camphor
hints. Richly flavoured attack and then supple and with lots of gritty tannins. Softly fragrant,
long and minerally prunes on the finish. (WS)15% Drink 2010-2024
● Fatalone, Speciale Primitivo Riserva 2001 Gioia del Colle Enticing nose of prune, mulch and
malt. Elegant, almost light palate weight that doesn’t seem to be 15% at all. Still quite a bit of
development possible. The palate is more youthful than nose. Fig and liquorice finish with fine
powdery tannins. (WS)15% Drink 2006-2022
● Fatalone, Speciale Primitivo Riserva 2000 Gioia del Colle A little less aged on the nose than
2001, although, arguably, the latter is generally considered the better vintage. Notes of plum
and shoe polish. Lovely concentration that keeps on lingering on the palate with finely
integrated acidity and gorgeous, coating tannins. Very finely tannic and long. (WS)15% Drink
● Fatalone, Speciale Primitivo Riserva 1995 Gioia del Colle 1995 can be compared with 2005: the
acidity was really aggressive when we released it, but it is now a vintage that has aged the
Developed nose of undergrowth, mulch and tar. A hint of walnut. Lifted, vibrant acidity on the
palate and the fruit takes a step back, but lingers on. Focused and with lots of powdery
tannins. (WS)15% Drink 2000-2022
● Fatalone Primitivo 1991 Gioia del Colle Only stainless steel and concrete.
Concentrated, almost firm nose of old leather, mulch and camphor and malt. The most marked
by oxidation in this flight with hints of dried fruit and almost tart acidity, but full spread of
aromas on the finish. Very long. Growing complexity on the finish. (WS)15% Drink 1996-2020
● Fatalone Primitivo 1988 Gioia del Colle Pale rust-brown ruby. Quite concentrated malty fruit
nose, a little smoky and tarry. Very energetic palate with linear, brisk acidity and softly
perfumed prune and fig finish. Undertow of powdery tannins. Malty notes. (WS)15% Drink