There isn’t a full consensus on whether Primitivo, from Italy, and Zinfandel, from California, are exactly the same grape or not. Some believe they are siblings, but DNA testing proved that they are both clones of an indigenous grape from Croatia known both as Tribidrag and Crljenak Kaštelanski. Clones occur when a vine has a slightly different characteristic, due to natural changes, and that plant is propagated to take advantage of that difference. This grape was thought to be extinct in Croatia, but in 2001 researchers discovered nine remaining vines, and DNA testing was performed.
The grape that started off life in Croatia was brought to southern Italy, where it thrived, loving the warm and temperate climates, especially around Puglia. Here it became known as Primitivo, which translates as “early ones” paying homage to the fact that this grape ripens early.
The next big journey for the grape was to the United States, in the early 1800s, where it was planted, initially on the east coast. It is suggested that the grape arrived via a nursery in Austria, and that it may have come to Austria during the Austrian rule over Croatia. The name Zinfandel appears in US nursery advertising dating back to 1832. Around 1840, Zinfandel made its way to California.
Zinfandel became very popular after the Gold Rush, as it could be grown via the heading pruning method. This growing method requires no lumber or wire—both of which were scarce at the time. In 1888, over one third of all grape vines in California were Zinfandel.
Currently, there are over 43,000 acres of Zinfandel planted in California, notably in Lodi, Paso Robles, North Coast, and the Sierra Foothills. In Italy, there are over 2,500 acres of Primitivo, planted mostly in Puglia. Finally, in Croatia, there are about 170 acres of Tribidrag.
Differences between Primitivo and Zinfandel are probably more related to the soils, climate, and winemaking, rather than slight DNA differences. Primitivo is an inky and tannic wine, with floral, fruity, pepper, and blackberry aromas and flavors. Zinfandel is bursting with berries, cherries, blackberry, anise, and black pepper.
California winemakers allow Zinfandel grapes to ripen to high sugar levels, yielding higher alcohol levels in the final wine. This extra ripening smooths out the wine by reducing acidity, as grapes loose acidity as they ripen. The end wine has jammy fruitiness.
Whichever name you go with, either Primitivo, Zinfandel, or Tribigdrag, the wines pair beautifully with barbeque and with spicy dishes. For cheese pairing, try Manchego or Cheddar. Recipes for pairing are available at https://zinfandel.org/learn/recipes/.
As a reminder to friends of City Vino, it is restaurant week in Fredericksburg, and a great opportunity to pick up a bottle from the shop and pair it with your takeout order from one of our great local restaurants. Perhaps a Primitivo or Zinfandel with your barbeque order.