Primitivo vs. Zinfandel

By Sunny Brown

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. But one thing is for ceratin, Primitivo and Zinfandel can both produce a wide array of wines and some can be quite wonderful. It can be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction with these distinct yet similar varietals, but there are a few things to know about each.

First things first. Are they the same grape? It depends upon whom you ask. This much is clear. 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. But are they the same? When planted side by side they produce grapes of differing sizes, color and bunch density. But the wines that they produce are similar enough that the U.S. ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) is considering a proposal to allow Italian Primitivo to be labeled as Zinfandel. This is causing quite a stir in California as Primitivos tend to fall in the value range of $10-15. Fine examples of both varietals are dense, very ripe and high in alcohol. To know the difference we must first know the grape.

Primitivo

We start with the Primitivo because it has the history and the mystique. Not as well known as the Zinfandel, Primitivo can trace its lineage from the ancient Phoenicians who settled in the province of Apulia (Puglia), the heel of Italy’s boot. Many legends surround this grape. They range from the hard to prove (the wine served at the Last Supper is said to be Primitivo) to the hard to believe (it is called Primitivo because it is thought to be the first, or Primi, grape). The truth may lie somewhere in between, but we do know that it is called Primitivo for its propensity to ripen before all other varietals.

Primitivo thrives today in its original home of Apulia. This tiny region is renown for massive production of ordinary wines. In fact the heel of Italy’s boot produces more wine than the entire continent of Australia. Vines are 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. But change is afoot for this tiny region.

New world techniques, low yields and careful winery management have brought new examples of Apulian wines to the forefront of southern Italy. Instead of flabby and thin wines we have rich, concentrated and hearty versions that develop well under the hot Italian sun. Primitivos tend to be juicy, well structured, heavy with pigment and concentration, 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 wonderful 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 trying the outlying regions as well. Some of the most famous wine-making names of Italy are trying to capitalize on Primitivo’s long overdue success. In the future look for wines from Antinori, Zonin and Pasqua along with established producers of Primitivo such as Rubino, Tormaresca and Masseria Pepe.

Zinfandel

Even the most novice of wine enthusiasts has probably heard the name Zinfandel, be it the hearty red version or the ubiquitous sweet pink garbage that changed the American wine scene in the 1980s. So famous was this plonk in fact that the red version was almost lost to antiquity. But Zinfandel has quite the storied past in America, even if it is packed into a couple of hundred years.

First brought to the U.S. in 1820 as a clipping from the Imperial Austrian Plant Species Collection, Zinfandel quickly made its way across the country gaining notoriety for its vigor and high yield. During the gold rush of the late 19th century Zinfandel was a favorite among miners and immigrants longing for wine similar to that of their homeland. Prohibition did nothing to slow its growth, and by the 1950s it occupied some of the most famous areas of northern California. As other varietals grew in popularity, Zinfandel was relegated to producing mainly jug wine in the hot central regions of California. A large surplus in the 1980s led to the production of White Zinfandel, made by either shortening the contact of the wine with the skins during fermentation, or by blending it with light, fruity varietals such as Riesling. This was a rousing success, and the true version of Zinfandel was pushed to the brink of obscurity.

But during the 1990s a few wineries in California began to make wonderful reds from the Zinfandel grape. Wineries such as Ridge, Turley and Ravenswood proved that Zinfandel could be a heavy, hearty and world-class red wine. The wines they created were rich, heavy with black fruits and almost sweet from the high sugar content in the very ripe grapes. An explosion in popularity occurred and today there are hundreds of great Zinfandels coming from all of the major wine growing areas of California. Particularly good are versions that boast an “old vines” designation on the label. The “old” in this case often is 40+ years but can be as high as 100 years.

But Zinfandel is not without its faults. The high sugar content can lead to very high alcohol content, with levels of 15% abv. and higher quite common. If left unchecked these wines can taste hot or have volatile acidity which makes the wine unstable and prone to a short life span. Despite its resistance to rot and disease Zinfandel can be hard to grow. Grapes on a single cluster can range from green and hard to raisiny and overripe, thus requiring more than one pass through the vineyard during harvest time. Like many wines it is often the winery or the producer that matters as much as the vintage or location. Look for fine examples of Zinfandel from Robert Biale and Seghesio or head for the better regions of Dry Creek Valley and Lodi.

There are many similarities in both style and flavor between Zinfandel and Primitivo, but the differences remain. Grape growers in both Italy and California will fiercely defend their version as the best, but what will happen if both can be labeled as Zinfandel? Or better yet, when both are grown next to each other in the vineyard. Will these two kissing cousins ever become one varietal? Probably not, but as the lines between the Primitivo and the Zinfandel grow closer together, one thing is for certain: We will have lots of great wine to try in order to be able to tell the difference.