Mark Aselstine
May 24, 2011 | Mark Aselstine

Zinfandel vs Primitivo

A discussion over the weekend brought up the history of Zinfandel and Primitivo and how similar the grapes were and how different their perceptions tend to be based on where you live.

Most wine drinkers are aware that the two grapes are genetically almost identical. Both are clones of a Croation grape called Crljenak. It makes sense to note here that clones in grapes aren’t exactly the same as clones in humans or sheep. Grape clones aren’t genetic matches, more easily they’re the same grape which has undergone some small change. Those small genetic changes happen easily in the vineyard, with many growers often reporting dramatically different ripening dates from one side of a pathway to another, without any other explanation. I should also point out that reports from the lab are that Zinfandel is closer to Crljenak, meaning that despite protests from Italian vintners, Primitivo may in fact be a clone of Zinfandel itself.

Since both Zinfandel and Primitivo are clones of Crljenak, they in effect share a common ancestor. Reports are that Primitivo ripens earlier and carries less sugar in an average vintage.

The big issue here are the dollars at play. Zin makes up 10% of total production in the United States and many California vintners make their living with the grape. Primitivo hardly enjoys the same type of attention in Italy, where it has largely been forgotten by history and the average wine drinker. California vintners are rightly concerned that cheap Italian versions of the wine will flood the market and undercut prices by being marked as Zinfandel. It’s a very real concern given the difficulties in explaining the situation to a grocery store or drug store wine buyer.

What do I think? Pretty simply, let’s let the French wine industry be our guide. For years we’ve been told that California wine lacks a sense of terrior, or a sense of place. It seems Zinfandel stands to gain from that argument and help to disprove it at the same time. California wine has a style and allowing wines being made from genetic cousins to be marked the same, isn’t doing any favors to small family owned wineries without the resources to educate consumers about the unique flavors and textures afforded to Zinfandel in California.


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