hen I first started learning about wines in the United States of the 1980s, Zinfandel was making a transition in the public consciousness — from cloying and sweet white wines to rustic and peppery reds. Part of the process includes casting Zinfandel as a true American grape, one that grew wild in the California brush and has been tamed only by the frontier spirit of that state’s winemakers.
In the 1990s, though, it was discovered through DNA testing that Zinfandel wasn’t really American at all, but rather related to a seldom-grown Italian grape from Puglia called Primitivo. It was probably brought to North America by an Italian immigrant in the early 19th century and then forgotten, thriving so easily in the wild that most people speculated it had always been there.
Before long, that discovery sparked a renaissance for Primitivo, which is now grown successfully beyond Puglia’s borders in Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, and Sicily. The Italian Grape Growers’ Association census didn’t even list Primitivo as an official variety in 1990. By 2000, though, more than 100 vineyards planted with Primitivo were listed by the census, and the number is probably several times higher now.
The explosion in Primitivo plantings presents an unusual situation. When the same grape is grown in both California and Italy, it is almost always the American winemakers who try to emulate something their Italian colleagues have been doing for centuries. In this case, it’s the opposite: southern Italian vintners are following in the footsteps of their American cousins.
I’ve tried my fair share of both Zinfandels and Primitivos. At their best, I think they have certain similarities: they are almost always robust and intensely fruity, fairly high in alcohol, with a good tannic backbone and enough acidity to make the wine a good partner for hearty grilled foods and heavy stews.
But is one better than the other? This is the kind of subjective question I love to speculate about. Would their extra experience with this particular grape mean that American growers would understand it better? Or would Italy’s storied history of making great wine give its growers the advantage? Which climate was better suited to the grape?
I developed a completely unscientific but thoroughly enjoyable way to try to find out: I hid three Zinfandels from Mendocino County and three Primitivos from Puglia in brown paper bags and invited a few friends over to taste and evaluate them. The wines ranged in price from €6 to around €25 and, unlike the previous blind tasting I conducted (see the January Pane al Vino at www.theamericanmag.com), everything was served at the proper temperature.
The most interesting result was the way tasters described the wines from each part of the world. The Italian wines seemed to take a page out of California’s rustic playbook, prompting comparisons like cloves, truffles, earth, and musk. The California wines, on the other hand, were more alcoholic (on average, the California wines had 2.5 percentage points more alcohol), but tasters mostly noticed loads of jammy fruit, full body, spice notes, and balanced and integrated flavors.
Which wine won? In this case, it was a pair of California wines that came out on top: one was Clos du Bois from 2001, an easy-to-find California Zin, and the other was Carol Shelton’s Wild Thing from 2003, a boutique-type wine hard to find even in California. Next were the two top Italian wines: Elegia Primitivo di Manduria 2002, and Sollione Primitivo Salento, from 2004.
My goal here isn’t to send anyone scurrying out to try to find these particular wines, but rather to give a good idea about what you might expect when opening your next bottle of Zinfandel or Primitivo. Besides, what was most striking to me was how good all of them were. By the time everyone left my apartment, almost every drop of every bottle had been drained. And every bottle in the tasting was ranked in the top three on at least one taster’s list.
At least with this small sampling, it seemed difficult to point to one bottle everyone agreed was under par.
Post script: back to the story about how Zinfandel and Primitivo are related. It turns out that scientists continued to study the matter after discovering the connection between the grapes. Around 2000, another discovery was made: DNA tests show that both Zinfandel and Primitivo come from an obscure Croatian grape called Crljenak Kâstelanski (pronounced “sirl-YEnak kassil-ANsky”). The connection is sparking new interest in that grape, and reports are that Crljenak Kâstelanski plantings are on the rise in Croatia. If that story follows script, a similar tasting in a few years’ time will include samples from all three countries.