One is from Italy. The other is distinctly Californian. One has a history that can be traced back thousands of years, the other less than 200. One DNA test says that they are one in the same. Another does not. Which is it? The answer varies as much as the wines themselves. But one thing is for certain, Primitivo and Zinfandel can both produce a wide array of wines and some can be quite wonderful. It can be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction with these distinct yet similar varietals, but there are a few things to know about each.
First things first…Are they the same grape?
It depends upon whom you ask. This much is clear. Both grapes descend from the rare Croatian varietals Crljenak Kastelanski, Dobricic and Plavic Mali. The Zinfandel is thought to be a clonal descendent of the Crljenak Kastelanski, the Primitivo more of a sibling of the three.
But are they the same?
When planted side by side they produce grapes of differing sizes, color and bunch density. But the wines that they produce are similar enough that the U.S. ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) is considering a proposal to allow Italian Primitivo to be labeled as Zinfandel. This is causing quite a stir in California as Primitivos tend to fall in the value range of $10-15. Fine examples of both varietals are dense, very ripe and high in alcohol. To know the difference we must first know the grape.
We start with the Primitivo because it has the history and the mystique. Not as well-known as the Zinfandel, Primitivo can trace its lineage from the ancient Phoenicians who settled in the province of Apulia (Puglia), the heel of Italy’s boot. Many legends surround this grape. They range from the hard to prove (the wine served at the Last Supper is said to be Primitivo) to the hard to believe (it is called Primitivo because it is thought to be the first, or Primi, grape). The truth may lie somewhere in between, but we do know that it is called Primitivo for its propensity to ripen before all other varietals.
Primitivo thrives today in its original home of Apulia. This tiny region is renowned for massive production of ordinary wines. In fact the heel of Italy’s boot produces more wine than the entire continent of Australia. Vines are coaxed to their highest yields, most of which end up being either shipped north for blending with other wines or re-fermented for industrial alcohol. But change is afoot for this tiny region.
New world techniques, low yields and careful winery management have brought new examples of Apulian wines to the forefront of southern Italy. Instead of flabby and thin wines we have rich, concentrated and hearty versions that develop well under the hot Italian sun. Primitivos tend to be juicy, well-structured and heavy with pigment and concentration, and high in alcohol.
Lighter versions can be floral and fruity, but these are becoming increasingly rare. Aromas and flavors of ripe blackberries, violets and pepper are common. Primitivos can be wonderful value wines, and even reserve bottles are rarely more than $20. The best examples come from the coastal region of Manduria, though many forward-thinking producers are trying the outlying regions as well. Some of the most famous wine-making names of Italy are trying to capitalize on Primitivo’s long overdue success. In the future look for wines from Antinori, Zonin and Pasqua along with established producers of Primitivo such as Botromagno & Leone de Castris.
Even the most novice of wine enthusiasts has probably heard the name Zinfandel, be it the hearty red version or the ubiquitous sweet pink plonk that changed the American wine scene in the 1980s. So famous was this plonk in fact that the red version was almost lost to antiquity. But Zinfandel has quite the storied past in America, even if it is packed into a couple of hundred years.
First brought to the U.S. in 1820 as a clipping from the Imperial Austrian Plant Species Collection, Zinfandel quickly made its way across the country gaining notoriety for its vigor and high yield. During the gold rush of the late 19th century Zinfandel was a favorite among miners and immigrants longing for wine similar to that of their homeland. Prohibition did nothing to slow its growth, and by the 1950s it occupied some of the most famous areas of northern California. As other varietals grew in popularity, Zinfandel was relegated to producing mainly jug wine in the hot central regions of California. A large surplus in the 1980s led to the production of White Zinfandel, made by either shortening the contact of the wine with the skins during fermentation, or by blending it with light, fruity varietals such as Riesling. This was a rousing success, and the true version of Zinfandel was pushed to the brink of obscurity.
But during the 1990s a few wineries in California began to make wonderful reds from the Zinfandel grape. Wineries such as Ridge, Turley and Ravenswood proved that Zinfandel could be a heavy, hearty and world-class red wine. The wines they created were rich, heavy with black fruits and almost sweet from the high sugar content in the very ripe grapes. An explosion in popularity occurred and today there are hundreds of great Zinfandels coming from all of the major wine growing areas of California. Particularly good are versions that boast an “old vines” designation on the label. The “old” in this case often is 40+ years but can be as high as 100 years.
But Zinfandel is not without its faults. The high sugar content can lead to very high alcohol content, with levels of 15% abv. and higher are quite common. If left unchecked these wines can taste hot or have volatile acidity which makes the wine unstable and prone to a short life span. Despite its resistance to rot and disease Zinfandel can be hard to grow. Grapes on a single cluster can range from green and hard to raisin and overripe, thus requiring more than one pass through the vineyard during harvest time. Like many wines it is often the winery or the producer that matters as much as the vintage or location. Look for fine examples of Zinfandel from Robert Biale and Seghesio or head for the better regions of Dry Creek Valley and Lodi.
There are many similarities in both style and flavor between Zinfandel and Primitivo, but the differences remain. Grape growers in both Italy and California will fiercely defend their version as the best, but what will happen if both can be labeled as Zinfandel? Or better yet, when both are grown next to each other in the vineyard. Will these two kissing cousins ever become one varietal? Probably not, but as the lines between the Primitivo and the Zinfandel grow closer together, one thing is for certain: We will have lots of great wine to try in order to be able to tell the difference.
Yalumba is Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, founded in 1849 by Samuel Smith. From modest beginnings, the Yalumba Wine Company has grown to become one of Australia’s most successful wineries, owned by 5th generation Robert Hill-Smith. Yalumba regularly receives accolades for its outstanding wines, and for its leadership in viticultural innovation and sustainable farming. Yalumba was the first winery in the world to be recognized with the Climate Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (2007), earned the International Green Apple Gold Award from House of Commons (U.K. 2011), and was the first winery outside the United States to win the BRIT International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing Competition (2013). The Yalumba portfolio commences with the fresh and flavorsome varietal wines of the Y Series, then moves up to the Samuel’s Garden line to capture the essence of the classic Rhone-influenced varietals of the Barossa and Eden Valleys, explores sub-regional complexity through innovative, modern wines in the Hand Picked line, and culminates with the coveted, collectible Yalumba Rare and Fine wines including Signature and Octavius.
Yalumba is a winery located near the town of Angaston, South Australia in the Barossa Valley wine region. It was founded by a British brewer, Samuel Smith, who immigrated to Australia with his family from Wareham, Dorset in August 1847 aboard the ship ‘China’. Upon arriving in Australia in December, Smith built a small house on the banks of the River Torrens. He lived there less than a year before moving north to Angaston where he purchased a 30-acre (120,000 m2) block of land on the settlement’s southeastern boundary. He named his property “Yalumba” after an indigenous Australian word for “all the land around”. In 1849 Samuel Smith, along with his son Sidney, planted Yalumba’s first vineyards, beginning the Yalumba dynasty. Today Yalumba is Australia’s oldest family-owned winery.
Yalumba is part of Australian wine alliance Australia’s First Families of Wine a multimillion-dollar venture to help resurrect the fortunes of the $6 billion industry highlighting the quality and diversity of Australian wine. The 12 member alliance includes Brown Brothers, Campbells, Taylors, DeBortoli, McWilliam’s, Tahbilk, Tyrell’s, Yalumba, D’Arenberg, Howard Park, Jim Barry and Henschke. The main criteria are that the family-owned companies need to have a “landmark wine” in their portfolios as listed under Langton’s Classification and/or 75% agreement by group that a wine is considered “iconic”, must have the ability to do at least a 20-year vertical tasting, have a history going back a minimum of two generations, ownership of vineyards more than 50 years old and/or ownership of distinguished sites which exemplify the best of terroir, and be paid-up members of the Winemakers Federation of Australia.
Coonawarra is one of the very few places in the wine world which is more famous for its soil than its wines. Terra rossa makes all the difference here; it is a key factor in the Coonwarra terroir. The region’s prime land, which has this reddish-brown topsoil over a thick layer of limestone, covers an area of 7.5 miles (12km) long and just 1.2 miles (2km) wide. The reddish color of the soil is caused by iron-oxide (rust) formations in the clay. These are particularly prized for their good drainage and nutrient-holding capacity.
The Barossa zone lies northeast of Adelaide Hills and is a compact geographical unit with a variable landscape of gently elevated terrain and flat valley floors. The overall climate is hard to categorize as conditions vary – not only due to the elevation but also because of the inland locations and the coastal influence. The valley floors are very hot during summer, with temperatures often exceeding 95F (35C). This, along with scant rainfall and limited natural water in the soil, makes irrigation essential. On the other hand, the higher areas are cool with distinctly high diurnal temperature variation, which helps to bring out the best from the aromatic varieties as well as assisting a high degree of phenolic ripeness in the grapes.
Eden Valley’s wine landscape is dotted with the rolling hills of the Barossa Ranges, which provide local vineyards with all-important altitude – the single most important factor in shaping the region’s wine styles. The best sites are located on moderate slopes well exposed to sunlight, at elevations of between 1200 and 1640ft (380 and 500m). This altitude makes growing conditions in the region much cooler than those in Barossa Valley, resulting in a longer season, which gives Eden Valley wines their accentuated flavor concentration. The region has a wide array of soil types – predominantly weathered rocks and gravels in a clay-based sub-soil.
Sorrento is a coastal town in southeastern Italy, facing the Bay of Naples on the Sorrentine Peninsula. Perched atop cliffs that separate the town from its busy marinas, it’s known for sweeping views and Piazza Tasso, a cafe-lined square. The historic center is a warren of narrow alleys that includes the Chiesa di San Francesco, a 14th-century church with a tranquil cloister.
Sorrento may have become a jumping-off point for visitors to Pompeii, Capri, and Amalfi, but you can find countless reasons to love it for itself. The Sorrentine people are fair-minded and hardworking, bubbling with life and warmth. The tuff cliff on which the town rests is like a great golden pedestal spread over the bay, absorbing the sunlight in deepening shades through the mild days, and orange and lemon trees waft a luscious perfume in spring.
In the evening, people fill cafés to nibble, sip, and talk nonstop; then, arms linked, they stroll and browse through the maze of shop-lined lanes. It has been this way for centuries, ever since Sorrento became a prescribed stop for Grand Tour travelers, who savored its mild winters while sopping up its culture and history. According to a letter from his traveling companion in 1876, the philosopher Nietzsche, not generally known for effervescence, “laughed with joy” at the thought of going to Sorrento, and French novelist Stendhal called it “the most beautiful place on earth.” Many visitors still share his opinion.
Winding along a cliff above a small beach and two harbors, the town is split in two by a narrow ravine formed by a former mountain stream. To the east, dozens of hotels line busy Via Correale along the cliff—many have “grand” included in their names, and some indeed still are. To the west, however, is the historic sector, which still enchants. It’s a relatively flat area, with winding, stone-paved lanes bordered by balconied buildings, some joined by medieval stone arches. The central piazza is named after the poet Torquato Tasso, born here in 1544. This part of town is a delightful place to walk through, especially in the mild evenings, when people are out and about, and everything is open. Craftspeople are often at work in their stalls and shops and are happy to let you watch; in fact, that’s the point. Music spots and bars cluster in the side streets near Piazza Tasso.
Campania is the “shin” of Italy’s boot, anchored by its capital, Naples. Its name comes from Campania felix, a Latin phrase roughly meaning “happy land”. The region has strong historical links to wine and vine, dating back to the 12th Century BC, and is one of Italy’s very oldest wine regions. The considerable influence of ancient empires, including the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines, means some of this area’s varieties have historical legends attached. The area is also famous for producing Falerno (Falernum), one of the most ancient wines in Italy.
Campania, like many Italian regions, is home an impressive array of grape varieties, some of which are found almost nowhere else on earth. Its most important variety is arguably Aglianico, the grape behind the region’s two most famous and respected red wines: Taurasi and Aglianico del Taburno. Aglianico was introduced to the area by the Greeks and later cultivated by the Romans.
Vesuvius, and the Bay of Naples
Also vital to Campania’s vineyards are the white-wine varieties Fiano and Greco, which are championed by the region’s most respected white wines, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo. Fiano has been used here for more than 2000 years. Its original name was Vitis apiana (Latin for “vine of the bees”) but this has become shortened almost beyond recognition over the intervening centuries. Greco’s name is a little more obvious, and indicates its Greek origins. Another light-skinned grape of interest here is Falanghina, which forms the backbone of Falerno del Massico and Galluccio wines. The honeyed sweetness of Falanghina wines gained the variety praise from the ancient writer and philosopher Pliny the Elder, who is credited by some as being the creator of the phrase in vino veritas (there is truth in wine).
Alongside the more-important varieties mentioned above are a host of little-known gems. These include Biancolella and Forastera, which together form the backbone of the white wines of Ischia. Suppezza, Sabato and Sciascinoso (locally called Olivella because of its olive-shaped grapes, and used in blends to bring a hint of color and acidity to wine) also play their part, particularly in wines from the Sorrento Peninsula. Along the Amalfi coast, the aromatic and orange blossom-infused Ravello and Furore wines are distinctive for the inclusion of interesting local Fenile, Ripolo, Pepella and Ginestra grapes. In the Aversa plains, the Asprinio variety, producing a dry white or zesty sparkling wine, gives the DOC Asprinio di Aversa its name. Finally the Coda di Volpe vine, named for its resemblance to a fox’s tail due to the way the grapes grow in long bunches, also plays a role alongside Verdeca, Greco di Bianca and Falanghina in the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio whites.
Campania’s success owes much to the varied climates and terroirs that host around 100,000 acres (46,800ha) of vines. Viticulture is in its element thanks to an abundance of sunshine, dry hot summers, mild winters, a long growing season and volcanic soil (the latter ensured phylloxera was kept at bay). The coastal Mediterranean breezes blow in from the Tyrrhenian Sea and across the Apennine Mountains to temper the heat, encouraging a bright acidity in the fruit. These factors also contribute to the varied qualities of Campania wines. For instance, an inland Falanghina grown on slopes where there is more rainfall offers more fragrant notes than those found on the coast, where the climate is continental and tends to be more mellow.
Despite being ensconced in tradition, today’s wine styles are fruit forward and youthful: the whites are known for their aromatic characters, often redolent of the local flora, while the reds (mainly from Aglianico) have big personalities which require a little aging. Dynamic and innovative methods have helped improve the quality of Campania’s wines, specifically through better vineyard management, harvesting methods and cellar techniques. A particularly notable name in the world of Campania wine is Antonio Mastroberardino, whose pioneering use of both tradition and innovation make him the most respected, experienced and knowledgeable winemaker of the area.
Established in the 1750s by winemaker Pietro di Mastro Berardino, Mastroberardino is Campania’s most renowned winery. Pietro was awarded the professional title of Mastro as testament to his skill in quality winemaking, a tradition that continued uninterrupted for 10 generations and lives on to this day.
Located in the town of Altripalda, the Mastroberardino family’s holdings are spread across several parts of Irpinia, in areas that have historically proved to be the region’s center of great-wine production.
Today, Mastroberardino is universally acknowledged to have been the most important guardian of the viticultural and oenological heritage of the Roman age. Under the patronage of the “Presidenza della Repubblica,” the winery has been appointed to reintroduce vine growing in the ancient city of Pompeii. The family-based firm has long championed the indigenous varieties of Campania: Aglianico, Falanghina, Fianco, Piedirosso, Greco and Coda di Volpe.
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The Ginger Man Blog
- North by Northeast…Wines of the Veneto March 26, 2017
- The Ginger Man Presents: Primitivo / Zinfandel January 2, 2017
- Yalumba November 28, 2016
- The Ginger Man Presents WINES WITH ALTITUDE October 30, 2016
- Vegetarian – “Do they actually taste better?” (With wine that is…☺) August 14, 2016