Primitivo is grown in Italy. Zinfandel is grown in California. Tribidrag is grown in Croatia. So why am I writing about three different grapes in this guide then? Well, here’s the catch – they’re actually all the same grape, with different names. Here’s another catch – nobody knew that until the 21st century. Ha! What a crazy world we’re living in. Welcome to House Pour, a guide that breaks down (not so) famous grapes and gets to the bottom of things by drinking (fo’ real).
Priests, especially those of the 18th century, loved wine. But Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati loved it so much that he traveled from Italy to Croatia to source some rootstocks and try to grow them back home in Liponti (Puglia). While closely observing the plants’ reaction to their new terrain, he noticed that the fruit ripened much earlier than with other varieties, so he decided to call this new grape Primitivo (first one). A few decades later, the Hapsburg Monarchy, ruling over Croatia, sold the rootstocks to horticulturist George Gibbs who moved them from Boston to California during the famous Gold Rush. What a great time for flourishing business decisions. Plantings increased, everybody was happily drunk and then, boom, along came the harrowing Prohibition. Vines were being ripped out left and right, bottles seized and everybody stopped caring about viticulture for the most part. But Zin firmly stood its ground in the shadows. By the late 19th century, its reputation erupted, going from cheap table swill to one of the most esteemed wines in the United States.
The fun doesn’t stop there. In 1967, professor Austin Goheen of UC Davis visited Puglia in order to do a bit of research on the various similarities between Zinfandel and Primitivo and concluded that these two grapes were genetically identical. In the early 90s, Carole Meredith (yes, the “can-there-be-any-other-business-where-there-is-so-much-bullshit” lady from Somm: Into the Bottle) decided to finally pinpoint where these two grapes originally came from. She collected over 150 vines from all over Croatia with the help of several Croatian enologists, at first speculating that Plavac Mali was the parent (it’s actually the child). With DNA fingerprinting, after almost 10 years of research, they proved that the true origins were in Kaštel Novi, Dalmatia. That’s how we ended up with Crljenak Kaštelanski, i.e. Tribidrag. Forget about Lewis Carroll, this is where the real adventure is, son.
As with previous House Pour articles, all the details on regions, vineyard positioning and soils can be found in the tasting notes below, but I’ll give you the nitty-gritty about the grape itself. For easier reference, I’ll use Carole’s term “ZPC” in this guide. ZPC is an early-ripening black grape variety that doesn’t need too much sunlight to create high sugars and high acids. You’d say this is a good thing, since it gets straight to the point, no? Well, the problem here is that it ripens rather unevenly and is thin-skinned, so there are two possible outcomes – the grapes either rot easily or raisin when exposed to too much heat. Conclusion: more human intervention is needed to get better wine, but higher prices as well. The grape is best suited for moderate- to low-fertility, well-drained soils, since on fertile ones it can go overboard with its fruitfulness. That’s why it gives powerful results on rocky or deep red soils. A hot & dry climate works wonders for it. The winemaking style is as broad as it gets, ranging from wishy-washy jug wines to huge, ripe beasts. In between you get dessert wines and something called White Zinfandel (sickly sweet “rosé” Zin made from low quality grapes). Generally speaking, ZPCs are single-varietal wines (sometimes grapes such as Petit Sirah or Mourvedre are added to enhance complexity). The wines have aromas of dark berry fruit, sweet spices and yoghurt. They’re full-bodied and usually dry, but display notes of jammy or stewed fruit with a hint of residual sugar. Tannins are softer than, let’s say, Cabernet Sauvignon, but the alcohol and acidity levels can reach rather high peaks. Like Pinot, ZPC doesn’t care too much about oak and shines best when it’s left alone. While some Zins have a big aging potential, most are made for immediate consumption (up to 5 years) to preserve fruit and freshness.
People’s opinions on ZPC are always compelling. You’ll mostly hear how it’s disliked because of its jamminess, elevated alcohol levels and just overall in-yo-face character. When I was living in Bosnia, we didn’t get much access to high-quality Zin (the case in a ton of other European countries as well). If you don’t know retailers that have broad knowledge about this grape, don’t bother buying from them. I can guarantee that you’ll get a prime example of a wine described above. That’s probably the main reason why ZPC’s sales are decreasing. The fashion of jam-jars started in the US in the 1980s, but like in everything, a new wave soon hit. Even though the anti-ripeness proponents were making good shit, the land, especially in coastal areas, was becoming goddamn expensive. And paradoxically, everybody wanted it, but not for Zinfandel. This was some good terrain, so why not just cover it with Cab and Chardonnay, amirite? Even Lodi, the capital of Zin, became dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s the same story in Croatia, but in Puglia Primitivo is still going strong, being the region’s staple black grape. Bringing consumers into the picture, we see that the need for drinking 14%-15% abv wines is long forgotten. The acidity can be great, the texture can be rich, the balance may be perfect, but when that 15% abv hits like a truck, it might not be enjoyable for everyone. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a tough grape to cultivate, but is still overshadowed by cheap crap floating among the supermarket shelves which leaves consumers thinking – “did I buy the wrong thing?” This could either be due to rigid misconception, variability or inconsistency. This time we blind tasted 10 examples from all over the world. We might have missed some appellations, but that wasn’t the point. The goal was to generally compare regions and price ranges and see if nine different people could reach similar conclusions. The results are in!
Zlatan Otok Zinfandel Organic 2015
What Sicily is for The Godfather, Dalmatia is for Zinfandel. You can’t have a blockbuster without the ancestral charms, so if you ever get a chance to visit the Balkans, this should be your first destination. I’m from Bosnia and I say this, mind you. Dalmatia is considered to be one of the sunniest places in the entire Mediterranean, receiving on average 2,724 hours of sunshine per year. The Romans and the Greeks weren’t unsophisticated lads, they knew where they were settling. With ideal conditions for winemaking, you can figure that chemicals aren’t used at all, so the term “organic” is mostly trend-driven. This had the most interesting (or should I say whimsical) taste profile of the batch. Dried red fruit, cloves, nutmeg, orange peel, white pepper and hints of herbs. Decanted for two hours, but the alcohol seems to stick out a bit, while the tannins and acidity integrate nicely. Showing age already, so if you want to make cellar space, pop this now or wait 4-5 years.
Purchased: The Adriatic Pantry
You might also like: Matela Crljenak Kaštelanski, Kairos Crljenak Kaštelanski
Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel 2016
Seghesio is a very well-known winery in the US, dating all the way to 1895. Today, it’s easily placed among the top 10 producers of Zinfandel with some of the oldest vineyards in the game. Regarding the region, Sonoma County is not necessarily an indication of quality. It points out that grapes were picked from different AVAs, in this case a combination of Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley. Even though it states ‘Zinfandel’, traces of Petit Sirah are added to provide color and structure. Damn, this was a tough blow, especially after hearing about and tasting many good examples of this fine establishment. Sweet, almost superficial aromas of blueberry, cotton candy and caramelised cloves, with some rubbery hints. Like putting a condom on a plum. No, you never did that? Ok, that’s just me then. It’s like that high school wine you thought was premium because it was $20 instead of your 7-dollar usual. Thick extract and fiery alcohol levels tiring out the whole structure. Take a load off, Seghy.
You might also like: Ridge Vineyards ‘Geyserville’ Zinfandel, Carlisle Sonoma County Zinfandel
Vigneti del Salento ‘Leggenda’ Primitivo di Manduria 2016
The area of Primitivo di Manduria is the Sahara of the wine world. Spreading from the town of Taranto to the village of Francavilla Fontana, every part of the land is blazing hot, dry and largely consisting of plains sloping lightly down to the sea. As it is easily assumed, this desolate region on Italy’s heel is still battling to rid itself of the baked-and-hot-wines reputation. Vigneti del Salento does a perfect job with its old vines and dedicated winemaking. The nose on this is just great. Ripe black fruit, Mediterranean herbs, leather and some earthy hints. A gangster of a wine, a notorious 90s lowrider with a tender heart. As one friend said – “business up front, party in the back”. Full of European character, from the sturdy body to the velvety texture. Even though the alcohol stands out in the beginning, it blends perfectly with the acid and tannins after air. Not as bright as some of the wines we tried, but still very well done and a definite winner of the evening for its flawless representation of grape and region.
Purchased: Ferrari Food + Wine
You might also like: Feudi di San Gregorio Primitivo di Manduria, Uno 1 Primitivo di Manduria
Sula Vineyards Zinfandel 2018
If House Pour wasn’t exciting enough for you so far, this will undoubtedly break that illusion. A Zinfandel from India – c’mon, where are you going to try that? Sula is a not so small winery located in the Nashik region of western India, 180 km northeast of Mumbai. These guys produce wines from 10 different grapes and export to 26 countries. Cool story, bro, but I highly doubt that this Zinfandel is on that list. First of all, this starts off with a Pinotesque colour of Zin – seriously pale ruby red. Then we logically progress to the nose, which is easily the most vulgar thing with a professional label I have ever had the misfortune of sticking my nose into. This is not reduction. It’s a nuclear power plant. In the mouth the wine’s bitter and acidic at the same time, with the fruit barely showing. I’ll give it praise for the balance of acidity and alcohol at least, but the taste is disturbing. Completely lacking in any redeeming quality of a Zin. Wait, IS this a Zin? Guess I should check the label.
Purchased: Sula Vineyards
You might also like: Gallo Family Vineyards Cafe Zinfandel, Eagle Creek Zinfandel
Day Sonoma County Zinfandel 2016
With Day, Ehren Jordan of Failla goes into the unexplored territory of Zin. Did he follow his style of Chardonnay and Pinot? You betcha. He first planted these vineyards in 2011 and today has 1.6 hectares under vine, all organically farmed. This Sonoma County Zinfandel is like a jar of sunshine. If you’ve ever ordered a bottle in a natural wine bar, you know what I’m talking about. Playful aromas of sour cherry, raspberry and cassis, tucked in with just a touch of wet earth. No superficial bullshit, just clean juice and a subtle lick of oak (aged in 10% new, 90% used barrique for 11 months). Medium-bodied, light tannins. Lovely black cherry and pomegranate in the mouth with crisp acids ever-present. There are absolutely no flaws in this bottle. It just lacks the extraction and concentration one can be accustomed to in Zinfandel, but that’s all about personal taste really. Not an overly complex wine, but ticks off all the boxes of an enjoyable one.
Purchased: Analogue Wine Merchant
You might also like: Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel, St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel
Levorato Primitivo del Salento IGT 2016
From all three countries producing ZPC, somehow Croatia has only stood out for consistent high-quality winemaking. Both the US and Italy had some dark patches in the past when they shoved everything into the tank (grapes, leaves, dirt, lizards…) and made wine out of it. That doesn’t mean they still don’t do it today, but since the market showed prominent development over the previous two decades, it’s much less present. Although, with Levorato I have my doubts. This was a bit cooked on the nose when just opened, but luckily wasn’t completely gone in the mouth. Very, very simple Primitivo with nothing but two notes coming up to the surface – ripe black fruit and leather. Oh yeah, and the good ol’ sulphur, can’t forget that (industrial oil was what one guy even said). Acrid and thin with boring, burnt tannins that round out the finish. This is so uninteresting I’m about to fall asleep just writing this.
You might also like: Doppio Passo Primitivo del Salento IGT, Luccarelli Primitivo Puglia IGT
Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs 2014
Personally, I would have been saddened if Ridge didn’t make it to this tasting. This a true icon of Californian winemaking, a winery that shot to fame after stunning the world by their triumph in the 1976 Judgement of Paris. Today, they continue to amaze with examples as fine as top-quality Bordeaux and Burgundy. Lytton Springs is “party up front, business in the back”. A blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignan and Mataro. Showing lots of unripe fruit on the nose and a bit of a green character in the mouth. Medium complexity. As we were progressing through the fruit bombs, I expected this to be fat, moderately-flamboyant and over-extracted, but instead I get this nuanced, structured, Old World-cellar-smelling and tasting thing which I would EASILY stack up against a solid dare I say, Pauillac or Pessac-Leognan. Not outright Zin character and maybe a bit young, but perfectly integrated on all fronts. God bless America.
You might also like: A. Rafanelli Zinfandel, Ken & Derek ‘Crowdpleazin’ Zinfandel
Vigneti del Salento ‘I Muri’ Primitivo 2016
Another wine from the champ Vigneti del Salento, this time an “ordinary” IGT Primitivo. During 2016, summer in Puglia was pleasant – moderate sunshine, no extreme temperatures. Just before the harvest of the black grapes, rain set in and halted the critical final stages of ripening, but the bush vines were less affected by this. The result – wines refreshingly lighter in body than those of 2015, with lower alcohol too. Great nose on this – dried/cooked black fruit, paprika, rosemary and sage. Fruit-driven as usual with no deeper character. The quite fat and warm cloaking of the fruit on the tongue troubles me a bit. Bitter, moldy-bread edges keep creeping in on the sides. Too sweet, too extracted, pointing out obvious mass production. Not that you wouldn’t expect that from a $35 bottle of wine (somewhere $9.99), but this could’ve used more effort. I know there are a ton of wines out there made exactly like this one, so I drink and write about them only on a dare.
Purchased: Ferrari Food + Wine
You might also like: Ronco di Sassi Primitivo Appassimento Puglia IGT, Santoro Primitivo
Silverado Vineyards ‘Soda Creek Ranch’ Zinfandel 2014
Napa Valley is the powerhouse factory. Of course, there are some exceptions, but ask anybody you know and they’ll tell you that this AVA is famous for boxer wines made from Cab Sauv, Chardonnay and our beloved Zinfandel. Luckily, the grapes here are helped by the San Pablo Bay and the North Coast Ranges which cool down the land leading to great balance of acids and sugars. That could be the reason why Silverado’s Zin was rated 3rd best out of ten at this tasting. An impressive score considering how robust this was. The nose – imagine a Jell-O block of the ripest strawberries you have ever encountered in life covered with a bucket of pepper and Christmas spices. Full body with a whooping 15.9% abv! Great complexity, long finish. You may prefer more delicate styles, but objectively, this is a really well-made wine. The expensive oak and high-quality fruit are easily detected here – there are no “fake” aromas, no acidification, no cheap wood. Just grape juice on steroids.
Purchased: 1855 The Bottle Shop
You might also like: Turley Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel, Robert Biale Vineyards Aldo’s Vineyard Zinfandel
The Federalist Wines Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel 2015
“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” ~ Benjamin Franklin. I honestly want to believe that this is a legit quote, because as ‘merican as this all seems (a winery honouring the Founding Fathers with Zinfandel), Ben must have had an awesome time back in the day that led him to statements like this. This Zin from Mendocino County is aged in bourbon barrels for six months and portrays Alexander Hamilton, who met his demise at the end of a smoking barrel in the most famous duel in American history. No, he wasn’t the winemaker. But that would be cool though. Bright, candied nose with aromas of bluberry pie, cherry and baking spices. Full-bodied, bit on the extracted side, but lacks important structural elements – expressed tannins and acidity. I wouldn’t consider this a perfect cellar-candidate – I just do not think it was designed for such. Pretty sure this is made for enjoying now and for a half-dozen years at best. Bit on the pricey side for the quality.
Purchased: The Straits Wine Company
You might also like: 1000 Stories Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, Edmeades Zinfandel
House Pour is an approachable guide to the world’s (not so) famous grapes. We’re a group of friends that meet once a month, bring bottles to the table and have a good ol’ time. If you’re inspired by the idea, please spread the love within your wine community. If you’re based in Singapore, don’t hesitate to join us or enquire on hosting your own event! DM at @grapenomad or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.