You say zinfandel, I say primitivo

The two grapes are very closely related - and their labelling has sparked off a storm in a wine glass
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Indy Lifestyle Online

By Anthony Rose

By Anthony Rose

15 July 2000

What else could pendulum zinfandel, that gold bottle of wine that's glittering on supermarket shelves, be but a Californian red? Not because it looks more like a bar accessory in a stretch-limo than a wine, but because it calls itself zinfandel, the grape with a 150-year heritage which California has made its own. In fact, this zinfandel is not Californian but an Italian red from Puglia - primitivo, to be precise - being sold under the zinfandel name.

Adopting the Californian name would be cheeky, possibly even unlawful, if it weren't for DNA fingerprinting research by a Californian professor of viticulture which has showed that zinfandel and primitivo are one and the same grape variety.

At the behest of Puglia's producers the Italian government applied to the EU to have the name zinfandel accepted as a synonym for primitivo. Though the EU has consistently called on New World producers to drop wine names associated with Europe like port and sherry, it granted Italy's request 18 months ago.

Cue a storm brewing in a wine glass. "The term zinfandel is more than the name of the variety. It is an American term that describes both a grape and the wine produced in the United States," says Katie Quinn, president of the San Francisco-based association ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers). "Zinfandel is a unique product, developed in America, and it is the culmination of history, cultivation, selection and geography." California zinfandel does, indeed, sell for much more money than primitivo, because its producers have worked to raise the profile - and with it the price.

Unlike the classic French and Italian varieties imported from Europe to the US, zinfandel is considered to be America's "heritage" grape. It was introduced in the1820s as a cutting from the Imperial collection of plant species in Vienna. In its eagerness to hijack the zinfandel name, Italy disputes California's assertion that the grape didn't originally arrive from Italy. And church vineyard records in Puglia's Gioia del Colle have evidence, dating back to the1790s, of a red grape that ripened very early and was hence called primitivo (first grape). Even if this were true, say the Americans, why should that give Italians the right to market the wine under a name which has become synonymous with California?

Having survived phylloxera, prohibition and two world wars, and having been eclipsed by more fashionable French varieties in the Sixties Napa Valley-led revival, the grape has achieved its status through the efforts of individuals such as Paul Draper (Ridge), Jerry Seps (Storybook Mountain) and Joel Peterson (Ravenswood).

Both California zin and Puglian primitivo produce a powerfully ripe style of wine. In California it tends to develop flavours of raspberry, black cherry and blackberry with undertones of spice and pepper. In the ultra-ripe style, it can become prune-like, resembling the sweetness and power of amarone della valpolicella.

Similarities and differences aside, should Italy be entitled to call its primitivo zinfandel? "Puglia needs to dedicate itself to quality instead of quantity or gimmickry," says Mark Shannon, the American producer of A Mano Primitivo. He believes that increasingly, lesser quality primitivo will call itself zinfandel "in a blatant attempt to mislead consumers into thinking that it is Californian", while higher quality primitivo will stick to its guns. Gregory Perrucci from Pervini in the primitivo home town of Manduria agrees: "We will not label any wines zinfandel - we believe that heritage is our strength and that the reputation of primitivo should be developed, not diluted by using a grape name associated with California."

As Mark Shannon says: "Zinfandel is Californian, no matter where it came from, and primitivo is Puglian."