Joel Vincent

Technology. Wine. Family. (maybe not in that order)

DNA Explodes Myth

By guest author Thomas Pellechia

It’s big, red, (not white) and its Zinfandel, at least it was until recently! I remember Zinfandel from those trucks that used to roll into my neighborhood in late October and early November loaded with the juicy red grapes.  We kids picked up the boxes of grapes for our Italian immigrant grandfathers to get them into the cellar quick. It was time to start a new batch of wine.

One thing that sticks in this old guy’s mind is the smell of those homemade wines. If you’ve ever had a peasant Italian wine you know what I mean when I describe them as earthy and rustic powerful comes to mind too.  Imagine my surprise to learn that the Zinfandel of grandfathers across our Brooklyn streets is the Prmitivo of Italians across the Oceans!

One of the most famous myths about Zinfandel is that the grape originated in California and grew only there. Then, there is the story that Zinfandel arrived from Europe in the nineteenth century with a fellow named Haraszthy, an immigrant who was among the earliest to put California on the commercial wine map. 

That myth is probably true, but it is also true that in the nineteenth century a lot of Italian immigrants settled in Sonoma County, and they planted Zinfandel too. If you didn’t know it, the University of California at Davis is the primary viticultural and winemaking education center in the U.S. When DNA fingerprinting became quite a sophisticated science UC Davis applied it to grapes. Working with European researchers, scientists at the university recently discovered that Zinfandel is the same clone as a grape grown in Puglia, the region of southern Italy known for cone-shaped
huts
and warm weather. In Puglia, Zinfandel is named Primitivo. Some Italian producers have started to both grape names on the label. But the DNA story did not end there. Researchers found that Zinfandel and Primitivo are children of the Croatian grape, Crljenak (don¹t ask me how to say it).

Zinfandel feels like the earth on my palate, or at least like it would taste should you bite into a branch from a raspberry bush. Primitivo wines often have a similar character especially the wines that are produced in the Puglian village called Manduria. 

A few days ago, in a class that I run locally, we decided to compare a Primitivo di Manduria with a California Zinfandel that was produced from grapes grown in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, a valley that still sports vineyards with Italian names. The Primtivo di Manduria was a 2000 vintage named Sabatucci that sells for $20 in NY. The Zinfandel was a 2002 from Dashe Cellars that sells for $21 in NY. We were not looking for vintage variation, just for the possibility that these two wines might seem like siblings. They did powerful raspberry from each wine, in the nose and on the palate.

The Primitivo was lush, like raspberry preserve; the Zinfandel had that raspberry wood that I describe above. Each wine was an alcohol delivery system 16% for the Primitivo 14% for the Zinfandel yet, it was hotter. The wines tasted like the same grape but the Primitivo was elegant while the Zinfandel was rustic. I guess its kind of like siblings with obvious family traits yet individual personalities.

Note: there is a style of Zinfandel/Primitivo that is truly big, lush, even kind of sweet, like a Port. We aren¹t talking about that wine here.

About the Author
Vivi’s is proud to welcome guest author Thomas Pellechia.  In addition to having been a wine maker at a prominent Finger Lakes vineyard for many years, Thomas Pellechia, was formerly co-proprietor of  is-wine and is the author of Garlic, Wine, and Olive Oil Historical Anecdotes and Recipes.  Thomas writes a bi-weekly newsletter for WineTalk.com.  To recieve the newsletter head over to WineTalk.com and register for a forum account.

Thomas Pellechia This article is published with the express permission of the author and is copyrighted by the author.  The author’s copyrights superceed the Creative Commons copyright that governs the rest of Vivi’s Wine Journal.

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