Zinfandel vines require days with many hours of sunshine, but in return will sometimes produce two crops a season. Grapes in the same cluster don’t always ripen at the same time. Its thick, red skin allows it to ship well.
A wide variety of wines are made from Zinfandel grapes. Most wine made from Zinfandels in America are red wine or pink (blush) wine. There didn’t use to be any such grape as a White Zinfandel; that was just a style of wine that American winemakers learned to make from the grape as white wines became popular in the 1970s. A true White Zinfandel grape, however, was discovered in San Joaquin County, California, in 1995.
The Zinfandel grape is very popular in California, and is now also being grown in Australia , Chile and South Africa. It turns out, however, that it has also been grown in Italy for some time, even though at first no one realized it. Botanical detectives have discovered that the Zinfandel grape is what is called in Italy’s Puglia (Apulia) region the “Primitivo” grape. They have discovered further that the grape actually originated in Croatia, where it is called “Crljenik Kasteljanski.”
In 1820, cuttings of the Zinfandel vines were brought to North America from the Imperial Plant Collection in Vienna by a man from New York, George Gibbs, who ran a plant nursery in New England. In New England, they were planted and grown as fresh-eating grapes. By 1832, a nurseryman named Samuel Perkins was advertising “Zinfendal” (sic) vines for sale in Boston.
How the grape then got to California is disputed. Some say it was brought directly to California by a Hungarian named Agoston Haraszthy and planted there in 1851. Others say that it didn’t arrive via Agoston Haraszthy, but rather came from cuttings from Massachusetts brought to California by a man named Frederick Macondray. In any event, Zinfandel were growing in California by the early 1850s.
Meanwhile, over in Italy, a grape called Primitivo had been grown in Puglia since the mid 1700s. In fact, Puglia was the main growing region in Italy for the grapes. Puglia never really made it on the map for producing great wines, even though it is the largest wine-producing region in Italy. Many of their wines were just shipped north and used for blending.
Puglia has been more noted for red wines than white. Primitivo di Gioia is a dry red wine; Primitivo di Manduria wines can be sweeter or fortified red wines.
In 1967 a man named Austin Goheen may have been the first to make the connection between the two grapes. In 1994, a University of California professor named Carole Meredith confirmed suspicions and made the definitive match between Zinfandel and Primitivo, using DNA from the two vines.
The winemakers in Puglia weren’t slow off the mark to realize what this meant. American winemakers had spent the past few decades building up market recognition for Zinfandel wines as quality wines, and were beginning to market them to Europeans eager for New World wines. Meanwhile, Puglia’s Primitivo grape wines were regarded as just “bulk wines”, and were unable to break into new price levels in the market.
Though it took five years for their case to work its way through the Byzantine European Union bureaucracy, by 1999 the Pugliese had EU permission to call their wines Zinfandel, too. American winemakers, who have no problem buying shaky cheese in green plastic containers called “Parmesan”, were predictably less than pleased at someone being allowed to use their name. Particularly problematic for the Californians is that wines produced in Puglia come to market cheaper than those made in California. In a strange quirk of international law, as of 2004, should the Californians wish to call their Zinfandel wine “Primitivo” (though they probably wouldn’t), the EU won’t allow them to do so — but, American law allows Italians to sell their Primitivo wines as Zinfandel in America.
Even though genetically Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same grapes, there are some differences that have emerged over time due to cloning and grafting of the vines. Primitivo grapes grow in smaller clusters, ripen earlier and as they ripen the grapes don’t shrivel as they will sometimes for Zinfandel. Primitivo grapes are also just slightly smaller and have more black colour in their skin than do Zinfandels.
The wines end up tasting somewhat different, as well, though this is more likely owing to wine-making styles and techniques. The Italian ones made from Primitivo are less sharp than the American ones; in addition the American ones have more fruity notes to them.
It is not known exactly where the name “Zinfandel” came from: some speculate it may have been the name that was applied to the cutting when it was first brought over by George Gibbs.