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Primitivo – The Italian Zinfandel

DNA blueprinting has established that the red Zinfandel grape – an increasingly popular choice in American viticulture – is actually genetically identical to the well-loved Primitivo grape that has been cultivated in southern Italy since the 18th century.

The term “primitivo” is derived from “primativus” or “primaticcio,” two words which refer to the early-ripening characteristic of the grape. While it is clear that this tendency to mature early has made Primitivo grapes a popular choice with wine-makers, the manner in which it was first introduced to Italy is still a matter of some speculation. It is now believed that the Primitivo grape variety originated in Caucasus in Eurasia around 6000 B.C. and was transplanted to the Mediterranean in the 18th century. One suggestion is that the grape is actually a clone of a Zagarese variety which was first cultivated in Italy by a parish priest near Liponti. An alternative, and perhaps much more romantic, theory is that Primitivo grape cuttings were part of the dowry brought to Italy by the Countess of Altamura when she married Don Tommaso Schiavoni-Tafuri.

The first appearance of the grape in America is similarly vague, although it appears that wine-makers began selling “Zenfendal” in the 1830s in Boston, and “Zinfindal” grapes were already being widely cultivated in greenhouses by the mid-1830s. Outdoor planting in California’s Napa Valley appears to have begun later in the 1800s, and by the turn of the 20th century Zinfandel grapes were the most popular, and most widely cultivated, variety in California. But because the grapes do not travel well, many growers began to use other, hardier varieties, and by the early 20th century Zinfandel grapes were virtually forgotten, except in certain regions of the southern US. And when wine experts “rediscovered” the grape in the mid-20th century, it was to proclaim Zinfandel as a native variety of California, and unique to the area.

When Italian Primitivo was introduced to California in the mid-1960s, and many wine lovers noted its similarity to Zinfandel, interest in the grape’s true origin revived. But it wasn’t until 2001 that, with the assistance of DNA sampling, the original home of the Primitivo/Zinfandel strain – Croatia – was positively identified.

Since their origin there has been a small amount of genetic divergence between the grapes of Italy and those of California. For instance, field test comparisons reveal that although Primitivo and Zinfandel grapes retain a remarkable similarity, Primitivo grapes are consistently superior. In part, this is because the earlier maturation of Primitivo grapes yields a subtly different flavor, with more noticeable blackberry and spice highlights.

In general, wines from Primitivo grapes are robust and hearty, with a high sugar content that provide a desirable alcohol content in the range of 15 percent. The flavor of Primitivo reds vary somewhat depending upon growing conditions; wines from cooler climates have a light raspberry predominance, while wines from warmer districts offer a more peppery taste with distinct blackberry and anise highlights.

Now that Italian Primitivo wines are becoming available in the US, the grape that has long been an overwhelming favorite of viticulturists across Italy is winning accolades with Americans, who appreciate its superior taste and authenticity.

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