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The Many Faces of a Grape: Demystifying Zinfandel

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Photo by tibchris

Some grapes go by one name and one name only. Take chardonnay, for instance. Whether the grape is grown in Burgundy, its old-school spiritual home, or in California, its adopted home in the new world, it always bears the same moniker: chardonnay. Unfortunately, the wine world is not always so user-friendly, which can present a major challenge for wine novices trying to get a handle on things like appellations, grape varieties, tannins, acidity and so forth.

Many of the world’s grape varieties actually have two, three or even four different names, depending on the grape’s country of origin and its particular clone, or genetic variation. In addition to having different names, each variant will also express itself differently in terms of flavors, textures and aromas, depending on where it’s grown. Grenache from the Côtes du Rhône in the south of France, for example, can taste drastically different than Cannonau from the Italian island of Sardinia, even though they are both technically grenache.

In an effort to dissolve some of the confusion, I’ll be writing a series of posts, each of which will explore the many names and characteristics of a single grape variety. We’ll start with zinfandel, a grape whose American identity is known to most wine drinkers, but whose international cousins might be less familiar.

California Zinfandel

California zin has become the poster child of the American wine industry, which is why many people reach for zinfandel on Thanksgiving when they’re craving something patriotic. No other grape has been associated with America’s viticultural history and identity more than zinfandel, save cabernet sauvignon, which as we all know, is a French grape.

Zinfandel is said to have arrived in the United States from Croatia in the mid 19th century, so while the grape is widely perceived as being native to American, it is actually Croatian in origin.

In California, zinfandel typically yields big, generous and darkly fruited wines that can pack a punch with exotic spices and rich, opulent textures. Zinfandel also tends to have a high sugar content, especially when grown in warmer regions, which translates into wines with relatively high alcohol levels.

Italian Primitivo

In the mid 1960s, zinfandel was found to be genetically identical to primitivo, the Italian grape variety that grows in the region of Puglia, Italy’s “heel.” Historical records show that primitivo has grown prolifically in Puglia since the 1870s, and like zinfandel, has Croatian roots.

Primitivo’s name comes from the Latin primativus, which refers to the grape’s inclination to ripen earlier than other grapes. Like its American counterpart, primitivo gives way to robust, blackberry-scented wines with high alcohol levels, but the Italian examples tend to be a bit more rustic and less polished than California zins.

Croatian Plavac Mali  (aka Crljenak Kaštelanski)

Both zinfandel and primitivo have confirmed origins in Croatia but there has been much debate over the years as to which native Croatian grape they’re actually genetically identical to—plavac mali or crljenak kaštelanski. Talk about a mouthful!

After decades of genetic testing, studies revealed that zinfandel/primitivo are actually the parent grape of plavac mali, the other parent being dobricic, another native Croatian variety. Great examples of plavac mali are now becoming available in the United States and tend to be a bit lighter in body than their parents, California zinfandels or Italian primitivos.

Zinfandel/primitivo was found to be the genetic equivalents of crljenak kaštelanski, which originated along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Lucky for us, crljenak kaštelanski is now referred to simply as “ZPC,” which stands for zinfandel/primitivo/ crljenak kaštelanski.

Editor’s Note: Are you a zinfandel fan? Have you tried these sister wines from around the globe? Let us know what you think, and check back for more of Etty’s wine wisdom on different grape varietals–coming soon!

  • Tal MB

     I am completely demystified.

  • Marcia

     I always thought thee were different varietals. Thanks for clarifying.

  • Ari

    I had no idea Italian Primitivo was the same varietal as Zinfandel. Very interesting.

  • Anonymous

     I’m partial to California zins, although I like primativos. I’ve never tried plavac mali.

Etty Lewensztain is the owner of Plonk Wine Merchants, an online shop focused on small-production, artisanal and altogether great cheap wine. The food- and wine- obsessed Los Angeles native cut her teeth in the wine biz running a marketing campaign to promote Chilean wine in the United States, and is certified by the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the American Sommelier Association. Plonk Wine Merchants specializes in hidden gems from around the globe and every bottle in the store is priced below $30. Follow Plonk Wine Merchants on Twitter @ PlonkOnline.