Tag Archives: California

Variety Show: Spotlight on Primitivo… Or Zinfandel?… Or Tribidrag?

StefanoToday’s grape in the limelight of our Variety Show is Primitivo, a black-berried grape variety that has sparked a long-lasting controversy as to whether it is the same variety as Zinfandel or a different one.

With the help of the precious and up-to-date scientific data from the brilliant tome Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012, this post intends to shed some light on this debate and provide an overview of the scientific evidence that settled it.

1. A Brief History of Primitivo

The earliest documented mention of Primitivo in Italy dates back to 1799 and can be found in a note of an amateur botanist from Puglia who called “Primativo” (from the Latin “primativus“, meaning “first to ripen”) a particularly early ripening grapevine that he found in his own vineyard.

2. How Zinfandel Made It To The USA

The introduction of Zinfandel to the United States has recently been proven to take place in the 1820’s when Long Island grape grower George Gibbs brought this variety to his nursery from the Schönbrunn imperial collection in Vienna, Austria. At the time of its introduction to the United States, it was an unnamed grape variety, but by 1829 it appeared in the catalog of another Long Island nursery under the name “Zinfardel” and was later referred to under several variations of that original name until 1860, when it was agreed that the variety should be officially called “Zinfandel”.

3. In Search of Truth: Are Primitivo and Zinfandel One and The Same?

In 1967 a plant pathologist from the US Department of Agriculture visited Bari, in Italy’s Puglia region, and he was struck by the similarities between Zinfandel and Italy’s Primitivo wines and grapevines, so much so that he brought Primitivo cuttings to the University of California at Davis for them to be analyzed and compared to Zinfandel. In 1975 Wade Wolfe, a PhD candidate at Davis, established that Primitivo and Zinfandel were one and the same variety.

This immediately prompted the “battle over Zinfandel“, with several Primitivo producers from Puglia who started selling their wines in the United States labeling them “Zinfandel”. This practice triggered a reaction by most Californian Zinfandel producers to defend their investment in the variety and resulted in a 1985 ruling by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (“BATF”) that Zinfandel could not be used as a synonym of Primitivo.

Nonetheless, the identity between Zinfandel and Primitivo was later confirmed, in 1994, by DNA profiling conducted by Carole Meredith at UC Davis. As a result, in 1999 the European Union granted Italian Primitivo producers the right to use the name Zinfandel. BATF filed a complaint with the European Union against such ruling, but it proved unsuccessful. To date, no agreement between the US and the EU on this matter has been reached despite the scientific evidence.

4. The “Zinquest”: Where Did The Primitivo/Zinfandel Originate From?

Soon after proving the identity between Primitivo and Zinfandel, Carole Meredith at UC Davis connected in 1998 with Croatian scholars at the University of Zagreb (Croatia) to start what was referred to as the “Zinquest“, that is the quest to determine the origins of Primitivo/Zinfandel. After much research, the quest finally came to a successful end in 2001 when DNA profiling established that Zinfandel was identical to a Dalmatian grape variety locally known as Crljenak Kaštelanski (meaning “the red from Kaštela”).

Later on (in 2011), DNA analysis proved that Crljenak Kaštelanski was the same variety as a very old Croatian variety indigenous to the Dalmatia region and known as Tribidrag, whose first documented mentions date back to the XV century. As an interesting side note, the Croatian word Tribidrag has Greek origins and means “early ripening”, which perfectly matches the etymology of the word “Primitivo” in Puglia.

According to the rule of anteriority (whereby the oldest name used for a same grape variety takes precedence), Tribidrag should be considered as the prime name for the Crljenak Kaštelanski/Primitivo/Zinfandel variety.

(Information on the grape variety taken from Wine Grapes, by Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz, Allen Lane 2012 – for more information about grape varieties, check out our Grape Variety Archive)

5. Geographical Distribution of the Tribidrag/Crljenak Kaštelanski/Primitivo/Zinfandel Grape Variety

In terms of geographical distribution, Primitivo plantings in Italy in 2000 amounted to 7,951 HA, mostly in the Puglia region and particularly in its Salento district. Wines are generally fruity, structured and high in ABV. Notable appellations for Primitivo wines in the Puglia region include:

  • Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale DOCG (an appellation reserved to sweet, raisin wines made from 100% Primitivo grapes grown in a territory adjacent to the towns of Taranto and Brindisi)
  • Gioia del Colle Primitivo DOC (an appellation reserved to wines made from 100% Primitivo grapes grown in a territory adjacent to the town of Bari)
  • Primitivo di Manduria DOC (an appellation reserved to wines made from 85% or more Primitivo grapes grown in a territory adjacent to the towns of Taranto and Brindisi)

Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag are fairly popular, respectively, in Croatia and Montenegro.

California is by far the place with the most Tribidrag/Zinfandel plantings, with 20,377 HA in 2008 (making it the second most planted red variety in California, after Cabernet Sauvignon). Zinfandel quality in California is uneven, although recently there has been an effort on the part of several producers to make quality wines, which tend to be big, bold and fruity.

Tribidrag/Zinfandel has also gained some popularity in Australia.

6. Recommended Primitivo/Zinfandel Producers

(1) Recommended producers of outstanding Italian Primitivo wines include, among others of course:

Feudi di San Marzano, Primitivo di Manduria “Sessantanni” DOC ($50)

Feudi di San Marzano, Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale “11 Filari” DOCG (€15 for a 500 ml bottle – not yet available in the US)

Gianfranco Fino, Primitivo di Manduria “Es” DOC ($90)

Masseria Li Veli, “Montecoco” Puglia IGT ($21)

Pietraventosa, Gioia del Colle Primitivo Riserva DOC (€25 – not yet available in the US)

(2) Recommended producers of outstanding US Zinfandel wines include, among others of course:

Carlisle, Zinfandel Russian River Valley “Papera Ranch” ($46)

Ravenswood, Zinfandel Napa Valley “Dickerson” Single Vineyard ($37)

Robert Biale, Zinfandel Napa Valley “Stagecoach Vineyards – Biale Block” ($50)

Seghesio, Zinfandel Alexander Valley “Home Ranch” ($58)

Turley, Zinfandel Paso Robles “Dusi Vineyard” ($42)

MWWC#6 – Two Wines, Three Mysteries

MWWC-logoRight before the winter holidays, creative fellow wine blogger Jeff (AKA The Drunken Cyclist) launched a fun initiative: a wine-based Secret Santa that he aptly renamed Secret Alcoholic. Basically, Jeff’s wife kindly took care of pairing each participant with a buddy Secret Alcoholic to whom one or two surprise bottles of wine could be shipped.

This, coupled with another recent brainchild of Jeff’s, a monthly theme-based wine writing challenge, gave me the opportunity to (so to speak) “break two wine glasses with one stone”: this post will be my first entry to wine writing challenge #6 (theme: Mystery) but will also serve the purpose of acknowledging my Secret Santa and sharing my tasting notes of the wines that I received.

Let’s cut to the chase without further ado: I mentioned in the title that there would be three mysteries to be solved – these are:

1. Who was my Secret Santa?

2. Which wines was she kind enough to send my way?

3. What did they taste like?

These three gripping mysteries worthy of Huckle Cat were all solved by the beginning of the New Year…

Right before Christmas, I received my package which, much to my 7 year old daughter’s delight, was nicely decorated with festive stickers, which led her to claim that the package “had to be” for her… 😉 After redirecting her to more age-appropriate presents, I opened the box and found a holiday card that solved mystery number 1: my Secret Santa was witty and ever pleasant to read Kirsten, AKA The Armchair Sommelier!

In a matter of seconds was mystery number 2 also solved: thoughtful and generous Kirsten had sent me two wines: a Viognier from her own State, Virginia, and one of her favorite Californian Syrahs, which is also a hard-to-get, wine-club-only red that has received some very positive attention from wine critics.

I very much appreciated the thought she put into selecting those wines: not only for her generosity in parting from and sharing with me a bottle of that exclusive Syrah, but also because she chose that Viognier to introduce me to one of the best expressions of that variety in Kirsten’s own State. I am all for promoting quality wines made from locally grown grapes, especially if they come from wine regions that are not as well known to the general public as others that enjoy widespread repute. So, way to go, Kirsten – I bow to you!

With Kirsten’s bottles in hand, solving mystery number 3 was only a question of waiting a few days before opening them and tasting their contents – just to make sure that they would recover from any bottle shock.

As is always the case for me with any wine, this was the most exciting mystery to unveil. Because no matter how well you may know a wine’s grape variety, the region it comes from, its environmental conditions, the producer or even previous vintages of that same wine, no matter all that, you may sure make your own educated guess about what to expect from it, but in the end you will always have to taste that specific bottle to appreciate all its subtle nuances.

To put it in the succinctly eloquent prose of fellow wine blogger Julia Bailey, who has devoted her own entry to this month’s wine writing challenge to this very topic: “It is simply impossible to know exactly what your wine will taste like until you pop that cork.” So true: if you want to learn more, I definitely suggest that you read Julia’s entry wherein she elaborates on several reasons why this is so.

As for me, time to wrap things up by sharing my tasting notes of the two wines. My tastings have been conducted in accordance with the ISA wine tasting protocol, but for brevity here I will not go through the entire step-by-step tasting process: I will only summarize the main characteristics of the wines and of course provide my own assessment.

Check out our Grape Variety Archive for cool facts about the Viognier and Syrah grape varieties, including their DNA analysis which suggests that they are relatives!

1. King Family Vineyards, Viognier Monticello 2012 (13% ABV – $22)

King Family Vineyards, Viognier Monticello 2012In the glass, it poured a nice straw yellow and was moderately viscous when swirled.

On the nose, it offered intense and pleasant aromas of yellow peach, apricot, pineapple, white flowers and hints of white pepper (a tertiary aroma suggesting some gentle oak aging).

In the mouth, the wine was smooth and exhibited only moderate acidity, which suggests that this wine should be enjoyed now. It was balanced and medium-bodied, with intense mouth flavors that matched the aromatic pattern perceived on the nose, and had a medium finish.

Overall, a good white with a nice bouquet and fruity mouth flavors, ending up in an intriguing, slight peppery finish. Not extraordinarily complex, but definitely pleasant.

Rating: Good Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

2. Herman Story, Syrah “Nuts & Bolts” California 2009 (16% ABV – $45)

Herman Story, Syrah "Nuts & Bolts" California 2009In the glass, it poured ruby red and viscous when swirled.

On the nose, it released an impressive array of intense and complex aromas of blackberry jam, wild berries, black cherry, tobacco, ground coffee, black pepper and licorice. A great bouquet that anticipated the “blackness” of this wine.

In the mouth, it immediately struck as a big, chewy, fruit-forward wine: its very high ABV (which nears the limits of alcoholic fermentation and pushes this wine to the highest step in the ISA scale of ABV perception: alcoholic) was tough for the wine’s good acidity and solid but unobtrusive tannins to counterbalance, also due to the wine’s not particularly high smoothness (I wonder whether it did full malolactic fermentation). This high ABV perception, that is clearly evident on the top of the palate, throws the wine a bit out of balance: given its good acidity, I would let it rest for two or three more years and then re-taste it.

The wine was full-bodied, exhibiting intense mouth flavors of blackberry, black cherry, plum, coffee, tobacco, dark chocolate, licorice and black pepper, which closely trailed the wine’s aromatic palette, and it had a medium to long finish.

Overall, I found the Nuts & Bolt somewhat of a “double-faced” wine: on the one hand, it had great, complex and intense bouquet and (if a little over the top) mouth flavors, but on the other hand, its very high alcohol (which its other qualities did not seem to effectively counter, at least at this stage of its life) made the wine feel a bit imbalanced. A few more years of aging may help make this wine more graceful.

Rating: Good (especially in perspective) Good – $$$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2013

StefanoA few days ago, Wine Spectator magazine has published the entire list of their Top 100 Wines of 2013… according to them, of course! :-)

Like last year, these are in a nutshell a few comments about their 2013 top 10 wines:

  • CVNE‘s Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 is Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year 2013 (rated 95 points) as well as the first Spanish wine to date to earn top ranking in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list: congratulations!
  • Five U.S. wines made it to the Top 10 (3 from California, 1 from Oregon and 1 from Washington State), up from three last year
  • Only one Italian wine made it to the Top 10 scoring sixth place and 95 points (Giuseppe Mascarello‘s Barolo “Monprivato” 2008 DOCG), same number as last year but better placement, up three spots
  • France put three of their wines in the Top 10, down from four last year
  • A wine from Bordeaux’s Right Bank was awarded second place (and 96 points) in the Top 10: Chateau Canon-La Gaffeliere 2010, a Saint Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé B (for more information and a photograph of the Chateau, check out our previous post on the Saint Emilion appellations and wine classification)
  • For the presumable happiness of The Drunken Cyclist 😉 a Pinot Noir from Oregon scored third place in the Top 10: Domaine Serene‘s Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, Evenstad Reserve, 2010 (rated 95 points)
  • Just like in 2011 and 2012, 9 of the top 10 wines are red and only one is white, Kongsgaard‘s Chardonnay Napa Valley 2010 (fifth place, rated 95 points)
  • Four out of the top five wines are below the $100 price mark, with the Wine of the Year 2013 being the least expensive at $63 and confirming how much good value for money can be found in a Rioja, even a top of the line one like CVNE’s; on the other hand, all wines in sixth to tenth place are above $100

For more detailed information and access to the full Top 100 list, please refer to Wine Spectator’s Website.

Mac & Cheese – Recommended Wine Pairing

Go red to complement Nicole’s mouthwatering Mac & Cheese, pick something with medium body, good acidity and gentle but still noticeable tannins.


Recommended Italian wines to go with Mac & Cheese include a quality Chianti, such as a Castello di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico Ser Lapo Riserva DOCG, a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot with intriguing aromas of plum, wild berries, graphite and a slight foxy note, or a Geografico Chianti Colli Senesi Riserva Torri DOCG, a blend of 95% Sangiovese and 5% Canaiolo with scents of wild cherry, blackberry, mint, leather and tobacco along with subtle tannins, or even an I Sodi Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG, a blend of 95% Sangiovese and 5% Canaiolo with aromas of violet, wild cherry, blueberry, blackberry jam, licorice, tobacco and soil.

Another very good option would be a Barbera from Piemonte, such as an enjoyable Pico Maccario Barbera d’Asti Lavignone DOCG, made of 100% Barbera grapes and with appealing aromas of rose, violet, raspberry and red currant, or a Batasiolo Barbera d’Alba Sovrana DOC, with pleasant scents of dried flowers, fruit jam and a slight toasty note.

If you prefer to stay in the USA, consider a nice, basic Merlot, such as a Bogle Merlot California 2009 (88 points, Wine Spectator) with cherry, herb and red currant aromas and distinct tannins, or a Kenwood Merlot Sonoma County 2008 (88 points, Wine Spectator), which is a blend of 96% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon with scents of cherry, raspberry, plum, tomato leaf and chocolate.

By the way, all of the above options have very interesting quality/price ratios.

And if you want to share your experience or have another wine that you would like to suggest, just leave a comment below!

Cheers!