Having lived through the zinfandel vetting process, I can say unequivocally that I like some of the a.k.a.’s better than others, and maybe primitivo best of all.
Back in primitive times—that is to say, prior to the advent of genetic fingerprinting—zinfandel was considered an Old Glory grape, as American as tornados, Westboro Baptists and lynch mobs. We hoarded the bragging rights, even if we didn’t particularly like the wine, snootily swearing that the grape was first domesticated by Spanish missionaries, even if we didn’t particularly like Spanish people or God.
Then in 1975, at the vanguard of the same technology that allows innocent people to be freed from prison after thirty years, a Ph.D candidate named Wade Wolfe used then vogue isozyme markers to show that zinfandel and primitivo di gioia—a grape grown predominately in Puglia, Italy’s ‘heel’—were the same. Dr. Wolfe, incidentally, is still making marvelous, off-center wines in Washington under the Thurston Wolfe label, including primitivo.
The following year, the plot thickened as it became clear that primitivo was a relatively recent arrival to the Puglian countryside, only tracing it’s Italianhood back to the 1870s; further analysis suggested that the grape might have originated in Croatia, where a Dalmatian variety called plavac mali stood out to U.S. plant pathologist Austin Goheen as a likely culprit.
As zinfandel/primitivo unmasked, plavac won the early support of Croatian-born/Napa wine legend Mike Grgich, who thought the rich, early-ripening plavac grape produced a wine that was close enough for Department of Agriculture work. At the time, he was quoted in Croat wine mag Svijet u èačiš as saying, “Plavac mali, which our ampelographers say is an autochtonous cultivar, is for sure the same cultivar as one abroad very famous as zinfandel.”
He then formed a zin-centric group called ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) which secured funding for an extensive series of DNA tests, ultimately, by the turn of the 21st century, concluding that plavac mali was a scion grape—a cross between local Croatian parents crljenak kaštelanski and dobričić.
Indeed, based on more exacting genetic evidence, crljenak kaštelanski turned out to be zinfandel wrapped up in a bunch of diacritical letters and unpronounceable consonants.
Now, I don’t mind sharing the fact that this gives me a duodenum’s worth of agita. To me, zinfandel being primitivo was as far as these fancy-degreed poindexters—who should be spending public funds finding cures for hiccups and hangovers—needed to take it. In my mind’s eye, ‘primitivo’ conjures up an image of Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years B.C.’; a churning melon-breasted urn of burning prehistoric oomph wrapped up in savage, seam-busting sensuality.
‘Crljenak kaštelanski’ is thick-thighed Olga with rolled-up bog pants and a pitchfork full of stank.
And then, along comes Jancis ‘Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone’ Robinson, who in 2012 relied upon even more recent research and declared that zinfandel’s official name should be ‘tribidrag’, which—if such a thing were possible—is even worse. A tribidrag isn’t even a human being; it’s a furry, galumphing, phantasmagorical and decisively non-sexy beast that brilligs beneath the slithy Tum-Tum tree trove.
How do you say ‘yuck’ in Croatian?
Enter The Flagon
Anyway, for the scope of this scribble, I’m not looking farther than Tormaresca Primitivo 2012 to put my stake in the ground. This wine is lush and elegant, less like Raquel Welch and more like Sofia Loren, who grew up on the Italian coast opposite the town of Bari from whence this wine hails. And not only from Bari, but specifically from the vineyard at Minervino Murge which—speaking of vaporous Victorian visions—sounds like a character from Dickens. The estate is owned by the hallowed Antinori clan, part of the considerable investment they made in Puglia in 1998, including corporate offices in Bari and two vineyards totaling 1500 acres.
One of the charms of California zinfandel has been its stylistic versatility; it is vinified as a simple, picnic/barbecue wine (Cline), a brooding, miles-deep old vine wine (Ravenswood); port-like (Rosenblum), and, of course, the ubiquitous white zinfandel which outsells the others many times over, and despite the reputation that precedes it, can be extremely suppable (Turley).
Primitivo, for the most part, has not yet seen the need for mass marketing, and has been a consistent workhouse in southern Italy, often grown to shore up thinner reds from northern Italy—much as Lodi zin has enriched Napa cabs in lean years. But it rarely is vinified in the blockbuster, big-tannin, super-ripe style for which California zins often strive—its palate pallet contains less of the wild, bramble fruits of the New World than the clean berry and licorice flavors of the Old Word spiced up with nutmeg, clove and cedar.
The Tormaresca Primitivo I tasted added a different dimension; one that I cannot recall noting previously in this grape’s many faces—a freshness that brought to mind the grapey immediacy of carbonic maceration. The tannins are softer, rounder and more integrated than in blustery, toasty, compote-flavored zins from Dry Creek and stronger than in wines typically fermented using the whole-grape technique; the flavors are bright red; currant, cherry and raspberry.
Had I blind-tasted this wine, I would have noted (with some confidence) that it was a cru Beaujolais.
At around $13 a bottle, it’s priced more like a bouncy Beaujolais Nouveau, however—most Puglian primitivos are priced to move. This one great candidate not only for a rose-by-any-other-name zin/primitivo/crljenak kaštelanski/ taste-off, but as a new face for an old favorite.
At last check, despite the apparent identicality of the variety, only seven hundred acres of California are planted to ‘primitivo’ compared to nearly fifty thousand to ‘zinfandel’. This is in part because the TTB recognizes both grapes, but as unique, non-synonymous entities, so producers must decide which name they are going to run with. The balance is swayed heavily in favor of California’s coddled cub.
See, what primitivo needs is a PR champion to work a nation-wide campaign to bring this grape into prominence; something cute and catchy from an old-school Mad Man. What about moi?
Two words for you, farmers, wineries, vintners, owners, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and marketing whizbangs; a freebie from Uncle Chris: