The zinfandel and primitivo controversy

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Suspicions have finally been proved right. Not only are zinfandel and primitivo one and the same grape they're both identical to the unpronounceable Crljenak Kastelanski grape of Croatia, suggesting that both the US and Italian grapes originated somewhere along the Dalmatian coast. Finally, one of the issues that has taxed the finest minds and palates in wine has been conclusively settled.

Suspicions have finally been proved right. Not only are zinfandel and primitivo one and the same grape they're both identical to the unpronounceable Crljenak Kastelanski grape of Croatia, suggesting that both the US and Italian grapes originated somewhere along the Dalmatian coast. Finally, one of the issues that has taxed the finest minds and palates in wine has been conclusively settled.

All this may not make a huge difference to how you sleep at night, but the Italian decision to allow the name zinfandel instead of primitivo to adorn the label has not gone down too well in California. At a recent London event comparing wines from the two, Pete Seghesio, showing his family's fine zinfandels from Sonoma County, made it crystal clear that Californians were unhappy about Italy's appropriation of what they regard as their own "heritage" grape. At the same event, Mark Shannon, an American making primitivo in Puglia, reassured us that he will not be cashing in on the name. "If the only way Italians can sell their primitivo is on the coat-tails of zinfandel, then you have to wonder about their confidence," he said.

You can sort of see why California is a little anxious. It has painstakingly restored zinfandel to respectability and it doesn't see why any old Tommaso or Ricardo should steal its thunder. Perhaps more to the point, it charges for the privilege. While it's unusual to find a decent California zin at much under a tenner, most primitivo is in the £4 to £6 range. Efforts are, however, being made to raise the game with the likes of Mark Shannons's 2001 Prima Mano (£13.95 when it arrives next month). His 2001 A Mano Primitivo, meanwhile (£5.99, Sainsbury's; Connolly's, Birmingham, 0121 2369269; Villeneuve Wines, Peebles, 01721 722500), is a delightfully juicy, glugging rosso with a clean raspberry and baked-plum fruitiness.

Is it fair to compare the two varieties directly? No more than it would be valid to compare Jacob's Creek Chardonnay with Puligny Montrachet. The grape alone can't reflect the character of a wine or the resources that go into its creation. Shannon's markedly more oaky and concentrated Prima Mano compares favourably with Seghesio's Sonoma County Zinfandel, at £13.95, an appealing red with plenty of juicy mulberry fruit and a delicate touch of spicy oak. With extra concentration and complexity of old vine fruit, Seghesio's Home Ranch Zinfandel, with a sweet savoury balance to its blueberry fruit, and the Old Vines Zinfandel's intensity of black fruits flavours, justify their hefty £23.50 price tag (Liberty Wines mail order/ stockists, 020-7720 5350).

At the same event, Tuscan winemaker Alberto Antonini put Italian grapes into a broader context based on his experience of advising New World producers. Antonini is dismayed at the presumption that anyone can plant the chianti grape anywhere and make a New World equivalent. "Grapes are citizens of the world," he says. "If the terrain is right and the research properly carried out, Italian varieties can be used to grow successfully elsewhere, but the point is to make a good wine, not a Tuscan wine." Outside California, Italian styles are starting to take off in Australia and in Argentina where barbera and bonarda are common. It may be a while before the effects are felt, but it is encouraging to see a gradual loosening of the French stranglehold on premium wines.

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