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Discovering Italy's ‘Zinfandel’

’02 A Mano is intriguing, affordable Primitivo. By Edward Deitch
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The wine is approachable yet complex, ripe and full without an overbearing level of alcohol.  There’s oak, but not too much of it, adding a touch of spice that punctuates the delicious fruit. This is what I look for in a good, inexpensive Zinfandel, and that’s what this wine is — just about.

It is actually not Zinfandel in name and is not from California, where Zinfandel is most firmly planted. Instead, the 2002 A Mano is a Primitivo from Puglia in the “heel” of southern Italy.  The grapes, it turns out, share the same DNA, a discovery that led to a big Primitivo push in recent years that has dozens of them on wine store shelves these days.

In any event, A Mano, which has a suggested price of $11 but which I have seen for as low as $8, is more interesting than many California Zins at the same price or even a few dollars more.  Its calling card is an earthy aroma combined with slightly roasted fruit that is intriguing rather than off-putting and a reflection of the Puglian heat in which Primitivo thrives.

The alcohol is a lean — by Zinfandel standards — 13.5 percent, a result, I imagine, of the relatively early ripening of the grapes in the Puglian sun. Zinfandels, by contrast, often ripen later in California and routinely weigh in at or near a monstrous 15 percent, which, to me, can be a turnoff in the sheer weight of the wines and the demands they impose on food pairings (bring out the big meat and game).

A wine like A Mano, on the other hand, can be enjoyed with just about anything. It is big enough for beef, chicken or various vegetable creations, but lean enough for broiled salmon, for which it could make a nice alternative to Pinot Noir.

The tastes evoke black cherry, raspberry jam and touches of cinnamon stick, pepper and chocolate. This is an altogether enjoyable and versatile wine, an excellent value and a nice twist on the quintessentially American Zinfandel.

Another twist is that A Mano, which means “hand made,” is co-owned by a Californian, Mark Shannon, who brought modern winemaking techniques to the fruit of old Primitivo vines. The results, as you’ll see, speak for themselves.