Uncorked Ventures Blog
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.
There are a few things we pride ourselves about at Uncorked Ventures, one is our willingness to communicate with customers and potential customers, but we also think being realistic about wine purchases is really important as well.
We realize, even our best customers are going to buy wine from sources other than Uncorked Ventures. We hope our customers find wineries they enjoy and join their wine clubs, but additionally we hope they continue to expand their palate’s over time by trying wine at a variety price points, from a variety of producers and learning and talking about wine in a variety of places.
On this Wine Blog Wednesday Thursday, we’re featuring Jason’s Wine Blog. (Hey, sometimes your business partner ends up on the front page of the paper and you have to rearrange your blogging schedule)
The focus of Jason’s wine blog is helping people navigate the expansive and ever changing wine aisle at Trader Joe’s. Both Matt and I grew up in Southern California, so Trader Joe’s has been part of the grocery scene for some time, although the chain has only now started to grow across the country, currently operating in 9 states. The theme is interesting, sometimes described as more of a bodega than a big chain grocery store because of it’s smaller size, the employees wear Hawaiian shirts which harkens to it’s roots in Pasadena. Interestingly, the store has been known for wine almost since the beginning, although they’re known for less expensive wine these days than they were in the 60’s and 70’s before wine stores started opening throughout the state of California.
These days, Trader Joe’s receives most of it’s wine press due to carrying Charles Shaw wine, better known as 2 Buck Chuck. Of course, there are plenty of value wines being sold every day at Trader Joe’s and with selections often radically different from store to store, it’s hard to keep track of it all.
That’s where Jason’s Wine Blog comes in. Personally, I enjoy his top 10 lists and can readily admit to enjoying the Trentarte Rosso blend from Italy in past years off of his suggestion. He has even gone so far as to create a hot map tracker for certain wines, showing which stores still have supplies available. It’s a fun blog and one of the few review oriented blogs which we read regularly. All the wines he talks about are readily available and usually priced at around $10 or under. You’ll also find his rating system to be among the most unconventional and easy to understand anywhere. He simply rates wines if you should buy them, or not and some of those in between.
Look, we’ve all bought really, really terrible $10 wine before at the grocery store no matter the size of our cellars. It doesn’t have to continue happening and we can thank Jason for at least part of that.
If there was ever a wine which caused discussion, it’s definitely Pinotage. Combine a unique taste with production occurring primarily in South Africa and you have a wine which is going to befuddle many wine lovers, even some of us within the industry.
As always, let’s start at the beginning. Pinotage was “born” in South Africa some time after WW I (1925 is generally accepted) as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Cinsault was called Hermitage at the time in South Africa and continued to be known by that name until genetic testing showed that Hermitage and Cinsault were in fact the same grape, so the name reverted back to the French version. Thus, the name Pinotage being a combination of the two grapes. I don’t think Pinotsalt works well.
From the beginning, it was an odd match. Pinot Noir is a cool weather grape. Cinsault is a warm weather grape. Pinot Noir hails quite famously from Burgundy. Cinsault was almost extinct at the time in the Rhone Valley.
The combination of flavors which are present, really depend on your personal palate. Fans of the wine and the grape point to it’s easy growing schedule and interesting combination of lightness along with a fuller body than a typical Pinot Noir. Additionally, the wine is known as the prince of South African wine, with winemakers in that country the only one’s consistently using the grape in their vineyards, although you can certainly find a few California versions these days. Those who don’t especially enjoy the wine will consistently tell you that there are flavors or smells which remind them of old socks, or paint.
All of this being said, we will certainly always include a Pinotage when we have South African tasting events. It’s an interesting wine to be sure. Not everyone is going to enjoy it, but unlike so many grapes it really does promote conversation within wine, which long term is a very good thing.
In early 2011 Italian wine is certainly world class quality, but the grapes which go into the wine and the wine regions themselves are often confusing and complicated, even for the most serious wine drinkers.
Sardinia is a perfect example thereof. The island of Sardinia is home to a wine which we’re including in shipments for our Wine Exploration Wine Club in March, a Vermentino, which is a grape which is barely known internationally.
Sardinia itself is a semi autonomous island about 120 miles west of the Italian mainland, interestingly the descendents on the island are more likely to be sheppard’s rather than fisherman, despite their island’s placement in the middle of the Mediterrean Sea. Even the language causes problems for visitors of all types as it is a curious combination of Italian, Spanish, Basque and even some Arabic. Sardinia is truly a culture which has taken bits and pieces from everyone who has taken residence on the island at one time or another. Language problems, a difficult to find location and continued naming problems in Italian wine (often 2 different grapes in nearby regions, have different names) will likely to continue to hide the quality and price to quality ratios which are both currently among the best in the world when it comes to Italian wines. It’s too bad because these wines with their minerality, would be consumer successes within the wider wine world if consumers were given a fair chance to understand what they were drinking.
We think Vermentino is a wine which could easily gain market share in the United States over the coming years, if growers are able to educate wait staff and wine store owners about it’s attributes. It’s a dry white wine, typically unoaked and very much fruit forward. In many ways it offers an interesting distraction for those drinking a lot of Chardonnay in the oaky, buttery style which has pervaded the industry over the past two decades.
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