Not long after the beginning of this new millennium, DNA testing proved that Zinfandel, considered to be "the American Original grape," in fact originated in Europe. UC Davis professor Carole Meredith found an exact genetic match of Zinfandel in Croatia, of all places, where the grape is in fact called Crljenak kastelanski. However, there is more to this investigative story. Another grape, from the Puglia (Apulia) region in southern Italy, claims to also have the same origins and genetic makeup of Zinfandel.
The earliest knowledge of this varietal places its origins in Greece, like so many ancient Italian varieties. It is not known exactly how or when this plant was transported into Italy, but the history of this grape in Italy dates back many centuries. In the 17th century, it is known that the Benedictine monks named the varietal "Primitivo" because of its precociousness (early maturity of the grape) in that area.
One is Italian. The other is decidedly Californian. One has a history that can be traced back thousands of years, the other less than 200. There is a DNA test says that they are one in the same. So what’s the true story? The answer varies as much as the wines themselves. One thing is certain, though, Primitivo and Zinfandel can both produce a vast array of wines and some are actually quite notable and compelling.
First things first. Are they the same grape? It depends upon whom you ask. Both grapes descend from that 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. But are they the same? Which was the true progenitor? When planted side by side, Zin and Primitivo produce grapes of differing sizes, color and bunch density. The wines that they produce are so similar, however, that the U.S. ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) is considering a proposal to allow Italian Primitivo to be labeled as Zinfandel, much to the dismay of California Zinfandel vintners, who feel the huge overrun of Primitivo from Puglia will dilute the distinct style of wine they are making with these grapes.
Zinfandel has been the backbone of U.S. wine production for well over 100 years, from its prominent role on the table of 19th century immigrants to the modern bastardized version, White Zinfandel, and the excellent, spicy red Zinfandels made today. Strangely enough, current Zinfandel growers are operating in the dark when they buy new vines. It’s not really known how many clones there are, let alone which conditions each prefers. DNA testing on plants is not refined enough to distinguish between such closely related clones, which is why they must be identified through meticulous vineyard observation.
Primitivo thrives today in its original home of Apulia. This small region is a very prolific producer of these wines. In fact the heel of Italy’s boot produces more wine than the entire continent of Australia. Unfortunately, the vines historically have been coaxed to their highest yields, most of which end up being either shipped north for blending with other wines or re-fermented for industrial alcohol. Things are changing quickly in this tiny zone, fortunately.
New world techniques, lower yields and careful winery management have brought new examples of Apulian wines to the forefront of southern Italy. Instead of loose and flat wines, the newest examples are concentrated and hearty versions that develop well under the hot Italian sun. Primitivos tend to be juicy, well structured, heavily colored and rich, and high in alcohol. Lighter versions can be floral and fruity, but these are becoming increasingly rare. Aromas and flavors of ripe blackberries, violets and pepper are common. Primitivos can be great value wines, and even reserve bottles are rarely more than $20. The best examples come from the coastal region of Manduria, though many forward-thinking producers are experimenting in the outlying regions as well.
2007 A Mano Primitivo (Puglia) $15
Nose: Earthy aromas with blueberries, acai berry and fennel.
Palate: Winter spices and cedar with warm tannins and a very smooth structure. Quite easy to drink and carries some interesting complexity toward the finish
Finish: Quick and tannic. Lingering berry and licorice notes, quite pleasant.
Conclusion: A Mano Primitivo is an Italian version of a Zinfandel wine. The contrast between this and American Zinfandels could not be more striking. The warm earth notes and soft tannins are decidedly different than a California Zin's typical fruit and hot black pepper bold character. While there are definite similarities, this Italian wine is milder and juicier with more earth notes than is typical for other Zins.
A great value and a solid wine for the price; can be found for closer to $12 on sale.
Mike Mollica is an independent food & wine journalist for the "Italian American Community News", author and publisher of the blog "Mike's Mostly Food and Wine Blog", and is a blog contributor to VinVillage.com.