Zinfandel’s old world ancestors

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Lake & Sumter Style Magazine.

California’s popular Zinfandel wine traces its roots to Croatia and Italy, but the tastes have evolved in dramatically different ways.

Learning about our ancestry can be interesting, and part of the fun is determining what traits and characteristics have been passed down through the generations. Like many American citizens, Zinfandel wines have Old World roots. And just like the human species, the grape varietal comes with a confusing history and lineage.

For many years, researchers have known that the Zinfandel grape is genetically related to Primitivo di Goia, which is widely grown in southern Italy. Researchers at the University of California-Davis later determined a possible link with the Plavac Mali, a popular grape from Croatia. Both Croatian and UC-Davis researchers believe the roots of Zinfandel and Primitivo are most likely from Croatia’s Dalmatian province where DNA matches were made with a grape variety known as Crljenak Kasteljanski, which is also the parent of the Plavac Mali.

Although the varietals are genetically linked, their flavors have clonally evolved over time and distance. Ancient Greek settlers in the Dalmatian islands produced wine more than 2,500 years ago, and during the Roman Empire, many vines were taken to Italy’s Puglia region, a short distance across the Adriatic Sea. Later, Italian immigrants brought Primitivo vines to America in the 1800s, and the varietal eventually made its way to California during the Gold Rush days. The Zinfandel grape produces rich, luscious styles of red wine and is grown predominantly in California.

Today, the wines each reflect their distinctive terroirs, and the differences are especially noticeable when comparing them side by side.

I recently attended a tasting for this well-traveled vine, which included wines from Croatia, Italy, and California. Generally, the Croatian wines were much thinner and lighter than their Italian and American cousins. They also did not have the spicy flavors that are characteristic of Zinfandels.

Of the three Croatian wines I tasted, one stood above the others — the 2008 Miloš Plavac, available from Blue Danube Wine Company for about $25. The Miloš Plavac was drier and had more body than the other Croatian labels. The Miloš family has lived and made wines for more than 500 years in the Adriatic village of Mali Ston near Dubrovnik. Winemaker Frano Miloš uses only Plavac grapes from his own vines to make the artisanal wines.

I’ve always been a fan of Primitivo, but tasting the wine alongside a California Zinfandel definitely displayed its differences. The 2008 Feudi di San Marzano ($30) was more fruit forward and less spicy than the California varietals. The smooth flavors reminded me of black currants or blackberries, but the finish was not as long-lasting as the California Zins. The Feudi Primitivo would have been my favorite wine of the evening if I had not immediately followed it with a Zinfandel.

Two excellent California Zinfandels served at the tasting included a 2008 St. Francis Wild Oaks ($32) from Sonoma County and a 2011 Paradise Sound Old Vine ($11) from Lodi. The spicy St. Francis was bold with a nice, long finish. The Paradise Sound, an excellent value wine, had good acidity and a jammy taste that made it easy to drink. Both wines were darker and richer tasting than their Old World cousins.

Buying Zinfandel can be like Forrest Gump’s “box of chocolates.” You never know what you are going to get until you pop the cork. Generally, if the red grape is grown in cooler areas, the wine will have more red berry or raspberry fruit flavors. If the wine is produced in warmer areas, more blackberry, anise, and pepper notes are common. And of course, the winemaker’s talents and skills have an effect on the wine’s taste, as well.

Many people are confused when they see a ruby-red Zinfandel being poured because they are more familiar with the pink-colored White Zinfandel, which accounts for over ten percent of all wine sold by volume in the U.S. Although White Zin is made from the Zinfandel grape, its sweet taste comes from a processing method and lots of sugar, not from the grape itself.

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