So is it Primitivo or Zinfandel?

So is it Primitivo or Zinfandel?

March 18, 2016

So is it Primitivo or Zinfandel?  And who really cares anyway?

At August Ridge we make Primitivo as part of our focus on the traditional Italian varietals.  Primitivo is a confusing wine for many people – until you taste it!  Let go of the confusion and just enjoy what is both a familiar and a different experience.  Then the questions will start coming- they always do…

The story apparently begins nearly five hundred years ago in Split, Dalmatia (now Croatia) with a traditional variety known locally as Tribidrag.  Through different mechanisms of chance and intent, that variety, or a version of it, came to rest in Puglia (the heel of the boot of Italy) in the 1700’s and in California sometime in the 1840’s.

For the romantic there are all sorts of wonderful stories of French Monks bringing Primitivo to Italy from France for the founding of a Benedictine monastery at Gioia del Colle in the Murge during the 18th century or of a Hungarian aristocrat ‘Colonel’ Haraszthy bringing Zinfandel vines back from Europe as part of his efforts to promote the California wine industry and his fledgling Buena Vista winery in Sonoma.  Unfortunately we find that modern research again has taken the delight from folk tales by bringing clarity when it is not needed!  It appears that the Priest in Puglia (which is an area of busy ports for the Mediterranean trade and only a short trip from Dalmatia) selected a well-known variety that was primitivo or early ripening.  And Primitivo is indeed a clone that tends to ripen two to four weeks earlier than Californian Zinfandel.  Not too many years later in 1829 and across the Atlantic a Long Island nurseryman, George Gibbs, received a shipment of cuttings from the Austrian Imperial Nursery that included the Black Zinfardel  from Hungary (then part of the Austrian empire) which he promoted as a table grape and of which we have record of being made into wine by the mid 1840’s.

Then disaster strikes.  Croatia which had a deep and respected wine culture was hit by the dreaded phyloxera which essentially wiped out almost all trace of their previous vinicultural glory.  And thusly Primitivo and Zinfandel became known as different varieties of grape with only rumors of a below-stairs connection whispered by gossips and malcontents.

This all came to an end in 1993 through research led by Professor Carole Meredith of UC Davis (and to be fair, there were others involved…) when she used DNA fingerprinting to connect Primitivo and Zinfandel as different clones of the same variety.  She then went on to trace Primitivo and Zinfandel to a very few vines found only in Kaštel Novi and known as Crljenak Kaštelanski that appear to be the variety still in its original home.  And that is a very short summary of over twenty years’ worth of work.

All very well and good, I hear you say.  What’s it to me?  What does the wine taste like?  That is a very good question and quickly and simply answered.  Primitivo – known at August Ridge as Zinfandel’s sexy Italian cousin – tends towards the peppery and spicy with the fruit and floral playing a lesser role.  In Primitivo the fruit flavors tend towards the darker with blackberry predominant.  This compares with the strawberry/raspberry of Zinfandel that leads the nose and palate into a less dominant pepper and spice structure.  Primitivo is Zinfandel upside down!  Oh, and they both make good dessert wines.

Food pairing is the same: simply grilled meats, simple pizza pies, nuts and cured meats.  But watch the sweet BBQ sauces!  Pairing sweet and fruity is tricky so don’t do it for guests unless you have tried it at home first.

August Ridge Primitivo 2013

And now you have it and now, perhaps, you care.  Enjoy your August Ridge Primitivo and smile knowingly as your guests respond with delight at the unusual spicy complexity and tuck into another rack of those twelve hour smoked ribs on offer.

If you really want to talk about this more come by the winery and see me at any time…

John Backer


August Ridge Vineyards


Note: BRW member winery, Still Waters Vineyards, also produces a Primitivo. Try both and compare the differences and similarities.

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