Is it Zinfandel or Primitivo? Primitivo or Zinfandel? When you Google these two wines and grapes, you get many answers.
The History of Zinfandel and Primitivo
Starting with WineGeeks.com’s description of the mystery… “One is from Italy. The other is distinctly Californian. One has a history that can be traced back thousands of years, the other less than 200. One DNA test says that they are one in the same. Another does not. Which is it? The answer varies as much as the wines themselves.”
WineLoversPage.com provides some clues… “Zinfandel [was] long called a ‘mystery grape’ because it seemed to appear from nowhere in California Gold Rush days, hyped by a promoter named Agoston Haraszthy, who claimed that he had brought the rare grape to California from his native Hungary. In fact, Haraszthy certainly exaggerated his role: Zinfandel… was well known in the Eastern U.S. as a table grape long before Haraszthy set foot in Napa. It had turned up in a horticultural fair in Massachusetts as early as 1834.
“It was only as recently as 2001 that modern grape sleuths, including Dr. Carole Meredith of the University of California at Davis, used DNA technology to confirm that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the identical grape, albeit different clones; and the same is true of the little-known Crljenik Kasteljanski of Croatia, which is now thought to be the original variety, exported to Italy as Primitivo and to the U.S. as Zinfandel.”
Going back to WineGeeks.com for more explanation about this heritage… “Both grapes descend from the rare Croatian varietal Crljenak. The Zinfandel is thought to be an exact replica of this grape, the Primitivo more of a clone but a very close copy.”
The Differences between Zinfandel and Primitivo
Is it easy to tell the difference? If you were to try the wines side by side, you would likely see differences. Both would be dense, jammy, and high in alcohol. But Primitivo, which originates in Puglia (Italy’s boot heel), would likely be thinner and less fruity. This is in part due to Puglia’s history (which is starting to change) of producing high-volume, not-high-quality wines. It’s also due to Europe’s tradition of less fruit-forward wines.
The Labeling Controversy
One of the most interesting things about this controversy is the labeling. Italy decided long ago that the name Zinfandel could be on Primitivo labels. This is great for Italian wine makers, since Zinfandel is much better known and tends to sell at higher prices than Primitivo.
California has been much slower to adopt the Primitivo name, only allowing its use when an actual Primitivo clone is used. Why the delay? It’s the flip side of Italy’s coin. California wine makers don’t want the downward pricing pressure that likely would come from the Primitivo name.
Blind Taste Test
So, what’s a wine lover to do with all this conflicting, confusing information? Have a blind taste test, of course! Buy a few bottles of Zin and a few bottles of Primitivo and see if you can tell the difference.
Cheers and Salute!