primitivo, zinfandel
A Primtivo Adventure
Exploring The Three Lives of Zinfandel

Thomas M. Ciesla
June, 2009

 

Things aren't always what they seem to be. Sauerkraut is not German, it's Chinese and was eaten 200 years before Christ. French fries aren't French, they're originally from Belgium. Swiss steak isn't Swiss, Russian dressing isn't Russian, and English muffins aren't English; they are all American creations. Lastly, Zinfandel isn't the quintessential 'American' grape, it's European as are all vitis vinifera grapes; it came here from Italy where it's known as Primitivo (pri-meh-TEE-voh). The name is derived from the term primativus or primaticcio, referring to the grape's tendency to ripen earlier than other varietals.

In 1993, Professor Carole Meredith at the University of California, Davis, used DNA fingerprinting to reveal that Zinfandel and Primitvo were the same grape. Primitivo is the 12th most planted grape in Italy, with the major plantings in the Puglia area, located in the 'heel' of the Italian boot. In 2000, Meredith discovered that Primitivo was in turn, genetically identical to the Croatian grape known as Crljenak Kastelanski (shaira-lay-nack kash-tell-an-ski). This grape appears to represent Zinfandel/Primitivo in its original homeland, although some minor changes have occurred over the centuries since the grapes left home. At the UC Davis heritage vineyard, for example, Primtivo grows differently than Zinfandel; the clusters are smaller and looser, and the grapes ripen earlier.

Crljenak Kastelanski (CR) is found in Croatia's Dalmati region and offshore islands. It's believed that Croatian monks carried this grape to Italy around 1700, much the same way that Spanish monks introduced vinifera to California and Texas. After over a century in the Italian vineyards, it was thought that a Hungarian emigrant Agoston Haraszthy brought the grape now known as Primitvo to California between 1844 and 1862. This was later refuted by compelling newspaper evidence that showed Zinfandel entering the United States from the imperial nursery in Vienna by an American, George Gibbs, around 1829, several decades before Haraszthy brought his vines. By the early 1930's, it was being sold as Zenfendel or Zinfindal for greenhouse production as a table grape.

All In The Family

 

Primitivo/Zinfandel Aliases

Black St. Peter, Taranto, Plavac Veliki, Crljenak Kasteljanski, Gioia Del Colle, Morellone, Primaticcio, Primitivo Nero, Uva Del Pergola, Uva Di Corato, ZPC, Zeinfandall, Zinfardell, Zinfindel, Zinfandal

......
For decades, Italian vintners treated Primitivo as a second-class grape, and in Puglia, a region once known for quantity rather than quality, Primitivo was grown as a blending grape for wineries in the Tuscany and Peidmont regions. After it was discovered that Primitivo was Zinfandel, Italian winemakers realized that there might be an American market for their wines, and began producing better quality wine. Some Italian winemakers go so far as to label their Primitivo as Zinfandel when shipped to the United States. The European Union recognizes Primitivo as a synonym for Zinfandel, but at this point in time the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau does not. American winemakers must label wine made from Primitivo grapes as 'Primitivo', not Zinfandel.
According to Professor Meredith, Croatian vintners are following in the footsteps of their Italian cohorts, increasing the amount of acreage planted with CK. Their plan is to capitalize on the fact that their area is known as the birthplace of Zinfandel/Primitivo, hoping to establish a foothold in the Western wine market. A report from the department of viticulture at the University of Zagred shows that in 2001 there were only 22 vines of CK in Croatia, but in 2008, that number had increased to 2,000 vines with more planting underway.
For years many wine writers and Croatia vintners alike believed that Primitivo and the Croatian grape Plavac mali were one and the same. To everyone's surprise, DNA tests showed that they were not the same grape, rather Zinfandel/Primitivo is a parent grape of Plavac mali. The other parent grape is Dobricic.
Plantings of Primitivo have increased in California, albeit at a snails pace for several reasons. Early on, many California vintners were using the grape for blending just as their Italian counterparts did decades ago. As with any experimental grape, vintners are going through a learning curve to find the best way of growing these grapes and producing quality wines. Some vintners even wonder if this grape is worth bottling as a single varietal, thinking that it's not that interesting of a wine.

Notable Puglia Wines

 

  • Aglianico
  • Negroamaro
  • Primitivo
  • Primitivio Dolce (late harvest)
  • Reds from the Nero di Trioa grape
  • Whites from the Fiano Minutolo grape
......

Public awareness is another issue. Most Americans have never heard of Primitivo, or understand that it is, in fact, Zinfandel. This creates a supply-demand issue for vintners who are wary of dedicating precious resources to produce a wine that will collect dust on wine store shelves. Historically, most Primitivo was sold through tasting rooms, only after being told the Primitivo/Zinfandel story; something they wouldn't get in a wine store. In the glass, both Zinfandel and Primitivo are rich, full-bodied, and often have high alcohol levels (as high as 16%). Some differences are apparent: Zinfandel displays red fruit, raspberry and strawberry, while Primitivo tastes of blueberries and blackberries.

As with any grape, the wines produced will run the gamut from jug-wine quality to rich, earthy and peppery quality wines. Don't judge a wine by a single bottle; try several products before writing off a wine altogether. In California, it may turn out that depending on the terroir, Primitivo will work as a single varietal bottling, or become a great wine as a blend. In Puglia, the percent of Primitivo in the bottle varies by DOC (the equivalent of our Viticultural Areas) anywhere from 50% to 100%.

Primitivo Notables

  Felline Primitivo Di Manduria 2005
Aromas of earth and chocolate, with a rich mouth feel and spiceiness.

Koine Primitivo Di Manduria 2002
Glass staining color, earthy aromas, soft plum and blackberry flavors

Salento Primitivo 2003
Berries on the nose, fruity taste with enough tannin for good balance

 
Die-hard Primitivo lovers are hoping for the appearance of that one great Primitivo that will garner media attention and spur production and raise the interest of wine drinkers. The vast amount of Zinfandel lovers is a natural market for Primitivo. With demand still low right now, there is some Primitivo out there but not much; even Primitivo from Italy is still shipped to the U.S. in limited quantities. If you find one you like, buy as much as you can, chances are it won't around again for a while.

There are many more familiar Italian wines lining store shelves, so why take on chance on Primitivo, especially if you've read a less than glowing review of the wines? For the same reason you choose any wine you've never tasted: wine is an adventure. Enjoy your Primitivo adventure.