simply sicilian—Zinfandel vs. Primitivo

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By Margie Roelands


A week rarely goes by without someone asking me about the connection between Zinfandel and Primitivo grapes. So I thought I’d try to uncover the mysterious relationship between California’s Zinfandel (ZIHN-fuhn-dehl) and Italy’s Primitivo (“Pree-mih-TEE-voe) grape.

Until the late 1990s, Zinfandel was California’s “mystery grape” because its origins were unknown. In 1994, DNA fingerprinting by prominent geneticist Carole Meredith and two Croatian scientists, Ivan Pejic and Edi Maletic, confirmed that the Primitivo and Zinfandel grapes were genetically identical; however, it’s not a 100% match. There are clonal differences between the Zinfandel grown in California and the Primitivo in Italy. A grape clone is simply a genetic subtype that occurs naturally and, in some cases, is encouraged by the grower. Other research in California and Croatia confirm California Zinfandel did not originate in Italy, but migrated from Croatia.

Although Primitivo and Zinfandel are genetically identical within the current testing sensitivity, they are not synonymous. Research is currently underway at the University of California Davis’s Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard in Napa Valley to help document the differences between Zinfandel and Primitivo grapes in farming and winemaking. Early indications show the Primitivo clone of Zinfandel has different growth characteristics than the California selections of Zinfandel. There seem to be differences in vine vigor, cluster size, berry size and fruit character. Because Primitivo is picked earlier that Zinfandel, it makes wine with less alcohol content. Zinfandel exhibits more red fruit tendencies, such as raspberry, while Primitivo exhibits more black fruit, such as blackberry and black cherry.

As of December 2007, the Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) lists both Zinfandel and Primitivo as approved grape varieties for American wines, but they are not listed as synonyms. U.S. producers, therefore, must label a wine according to whether it is Zinfandel or Primitivo.

The Zinfandel name is uniquely American—the earliest and only documented use of the name was by a Boston nursery owner who advertised Zinfandel for sale during the Gold Rush in 1832. Today, Zinfandel is the third leading grape varietal in California, but the grape is also grown in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

Zinfandel and Primitivo are great food and cheese wines. They both pair well with red meats, game, lamb, spicy foods, pasta, and pizza.

Zinfandel Cupcakes
Zinfandel Cupcakes

Zinfandel Cupcake Recipe

M! August/September 2012


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