Primitivo: Genetically the same grape as Zinfandel
Coming soon to a wine store near you: Primitivo from Italy. The story behind that wine is delicious, stretching all the way from California to Croatia to Washington, D.C. But is the wine as delicious as the tale? We decided to find out.
The story starts with Zinfandel. For many years, Zinfandel was considered a uniquely American grape and something of a mystery. Where did it come from? Ultimately, DNA testing showed that it was the same grape as Primitivo, which is widely planted in Italy, especially in the "boot-heel" area of Puglia (it's the 12th most widely planted grape in Italy, according to the most recent figures). Personally, we still consider Zinfandel uniquely American because its long, special history in the U.S. - not to mention different terroir - means the wine has a particular taste and meaning, but, in any event, that wasn't the end of the story. Still trying to figure out the ultimate home of Zinfandel, researchers found that it is the same as a grape in Croatia called Crljenak Kastelanski.
We called Carole Meredith, the famous vine-DNA sleuth from the University of California at Davis. Meredith, who is now professor emerita at Davis and makes wine at Lagier Meredith Vineyard in Napa with her husband, Stephen Lagier, told us the scientific evidence that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same has been around for at least 15 years. In 2002, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau proposed to formally declare that Zinfandel and Primitivo could be used interchangeably on labels. Six years later, there has been no action on that proposal, but a TTB spokesman told us a decision is expected within six months.
Meantime, the label regulations are complex. The European Union recognizes that they are the same grape and the U.S. bows to the EU on imports, which means that some Italian Primitivo is labeled Zinfandel.
In the U.S., some grapes have been called Primitivo forever - the first that we can recall, years ago, was from the charming Hop Kiln Winery in Sonoma and it was a monster of a wine. (Hop Kiln says it no longer makes Primitivo.) Meredith says American Primitivo is also Zinfandel, but a clone with "subtle" differences. When Primitivo is used in American wine, the wine must be called Primitivo - and there is not much of that - but otherwise American Zinfandel must be called Zinfandel.
Now, the reason this is all relevant is that Italian producers of Primitivo, which was often used as a blending grape in the past, have realized that there might well be a market for what they could call "Italian Zinfandel." So suddenly there are Italian Primitivos on shelves, sometimes called that, sometimes called Zinfandel and sometimes called Primitivo/Zinfandel.
This is all interesting to us, but what we really care about is this: How does this new little tide of Italian Primitivo taste? Especially because we've been disappointed with lower-priced American Zinfandel for some time now, could this be a reasonable alternative? We bought every one we could find to answer those questions.
While there aren't a million of them in stores - yet - and not every store has them, there's a greater selection on shelves than ever, with more arriving all the time. While a few that we bought cost more than $20, most were in the $10-to-$15 range. All of the wines we tasted came from Puglia. Some simply said they were from Puglia, some were from the more specific Salento area and some had a formal appellation of Primitivo di Manduria.
Sadly, we were not pleased. It seems pretty clear that many wineries don't know what the heck they want to do with this grape. In most cases, vintners have replicated Zinfandel at its worst - a charmless, heavy, sweet, overly alcoholic, flabby, vanilla-infused wine. The wines seem tailored for a perceived American taste for sweet, oaky, alcoholic and heavy wines. Others tasted like jug wines made from some sort of anonymous grape, with little character of any kind. "They don't know what they are," as Dottie put it at one point, having tasted a flight of six wines that were all over the map. What a mistake!
Italians obviously know how to make wines that express the grape and the place. There's no reason these wines can't have character - real fruit, real earth, real respect for the consumer.
In fact, we found a handful that did. A wine called Flaio showed what Primitivo can be when it's allowed to speak on its own: charming, fairly soft, lively and nicely earthy, giving the wine an easy authenticity. It was just $10.99 and is the kind of wine we'd have around the house all the time to open for no reason at all. Another wine, Terra del Galeso "Chierico," showed what Primitivo can be at the other end of the scale: rich and soulful, with a long, remarkable black-pepper finish that reminded us of the Zinfandel of our youth. It was $20.99. The winery made about 1,600 cases, but, unfortunately, just 100 cases were imported into the U.S., according to importer Wine and Passion of Hermosa Beach, Calif. It turned out that most of the wines we liked are rare on U.S. shelves.
We must tell you that there are far better bets in the Italian aisle and, at this point, we wouldn't take a chance on Primitivo, even at a low price. The fact that few of the wines we liked have even a hint of wide distribution is a bad sign. We'll keep trying them and let you know if we change our opinion.
In the meantime, Meredith says Croatian vintners are planting more and more Crljenak Kastelanski. So if you want to start practicing how to ask for it at your local store, try shaira-lay-nack kash-tell-an-ski.
• Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher write Tastings for The Wall Street Journal. Melanie Grayce West contributed to this article. Email them at email@example.com.