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Home primitive: Zinfandel versus Primitivo
When I first started learning about wines in the United States of the 1980s,
Zinfandel was making a transition in the public consciousness — from
cloying and sweet white wines to rustic and peppery reds. Part of the process
included casting Zinfandel as a true American grape, one that grew wild in the
California brush and has been tamed only by the frontier spirit of that state’s
In the 1990s, though, it was discovered through DNA testing that Zinfandel
wasn’t really American at all, but rather related to a seldom-grown Italian
grape from Puglia called Primitivo. It was probably brought to North America
by an Italian immigrant in the early 19th century and then forgotten, thriving
so easily in the wild that most people speculated it had always been there.
Before long, that discovery sparked a renaissance for Primitivo, which is now
grown successfully beyond Puglia’s borders in Basilicata, Calabria,
Campania, Molise, and Sicily. The Italian Grape Growers’ Association census
didn’t even list Primitivo as an official variety in 1990. By 2000, though, more
than 100 vineyards planted with Primitivo were listed by the census, and the
number is probably several times higher now.
The explosion in Primitivo plantings presents an unusual situation. When the
same grape is grown in both California and Italy, it is almost always the
American winemakers who try to emulate something their Italian colleagues
have been doing for centuries. In this case, it’s the opposite: southern Italian
vintners are following in the footsteps of their American cousins.
I’ve tried my fair share of both Zinfandels and Primitivos. At their best, I think
they have certain similarities: they are almost always robust and intensely
fruity, fairly high in alcohol, with a good tannic backbone and enough acidity to
make the wine a good partner for hearty grilled foods and heavy stews.
But is one better than the other? This is the kind of subjective question I love to
speculate about. Would their extra experience with this particular grape mean
that American growers would understand it better? Or would Italy’s storied
history of making great wine give its growers the advantage? Which climate was
better suited to the grape?
I developed a completely unscientific but thoroughly enjoyable way to try to find out: I hid three Zinfandels from Mendocino County
and three Primitivos from Puglia in brown paper bags and invited a few friends over to taste and evaluate them. The wines
ranged in price from €6 to around €25 and, unlike the previous blind tasting I conducted, everything was served at the proper
The most interesting result was the way tasters described the wines from each part of the world. The Italian wines seemed to
take a page out of California’s rustic playbook, prompting comparisons like cloves, truffles, earth, and musk. The California
wines, on the other hand, were more alcoholic (on average, the California wines had 2.5 percentage points more alcohol), but
tasters mostly noticed loads of jammy fruit, full body, spice notes, and balanced and integrated flavors.
Which wine won? In this case, it was a pair of California wines that came out on top: one was Clos du Bois from 2001, an easy-
to-find California Zin, and the other was Carol Shelton’s Wild Thing from 2003, a boutique-type wine hard to find even in
California. Next were the two top Italian wines: Elegia Primitivo di Manduria 2002, and Sollione Primitivo Salento, from 2004.
My goal here isn’t to send anyone scurrying out to try to find these particular wines, but rather to give a good idea about what you
might expect when opening your next bottle of Zinfandel or Primitivo. Besides, what was most striking to me was how good all of
them were. By the time everyone left my apartment, almost every drop of every bottle had been drained. And every bottle in the
tasting was ranked in the top three on at least one taster’s list.
At least with this small sampling, it seemed difficult to point to one bottle everyone agreed was under par.
Post script: back to the story about how Zinfandel and Primitivo are related. It turns out that scientists continued to study the
matter after discovering the connection between the grapes. Around 2000, another discovery was made: DNA tests show that
both Zinfandel and Primitivo come from an obscure Croatian grape called Crljenak Kâstelanski (pronounced “sirl-YEnak kassil-
ANsky”). The connection is sparking new interest in that grape, and reports are that Crljenak Kâstelanski plantings are on the
rise in Croatia. If that story follows script, a similar tasting in a few years’ time will include samples from all three countries.
Eric J. Lyman's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Write to him with comments, suggestions, and column
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Which wine won? One was Carol Shelton’s Wild
Thing from 2003, a boutique-type wine hard to find
even in California.