Wintertime is a time for fantastic prime rib and steaks, chops and other big foods. When we come in out of the cold, (winter has finally become cold in Connecticut) the big hearty red meats seem to help us through the night. The wine that goes well with big hearty red meats is a big hearty Zinfandel. Some of the most prized vineyards in California are those planted with old zinfandel vines. These twisted gnarled vines are very low in productivity and as a result very high in quality. There is no designation for “Old Vine Zinfandel” but it is accepted that the vines should be at least forty years old. Zinfandel is called America’s grape because no European grape is called Zinfandel; however, the DNA experimentation indicates Zinfandel is the same as the Italian grape Primitivo. It is argued that Zinfandel came before Primitivo and then Primitivo before Zinfandel and this controversy goes back and forth.
They are both related to grapes called plavac mali that originated on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and was brought to Italy by the Romans. In the US a percentage of the grapes were turned into a slightly sweet, mild tasting, inexpensive white wine called white zinfandel. This is a white wine made from a red grape. It is known as grandma’s wine or non-wine drinkers wine. This has nothing to do with the real wine. Zinfandel is a huge mouthwatering, big fruit dry red that is jammy and irresistible, especially when paired with big red meat dishes.
Zinfandel was long considered “America’s vine and wineˮ,  but when University of California, Davis (UCD) Professor Austin Goheen visited Italy in 1967, he noticed how wine made from Primitivo reminded him of Zinfandel . Others also made the connection about that time . Primitivo was brought to California in 1968, and ampelographers declared it identical to Zinfandel in 1972. The first wine made from these California vines in 1975 also seemed identical to Zinfandel . In 1975, PhD student Wade Wolfe showed that the two varieties had identical isozyme fingerprints .
Dr. Lamberti of Bari had suggested to Goheen in 1976 that Primitivo might be the Croatian variety Plavac Mali . By 1982 Goheen had confirmed that they were similar but not identical, probably by isozyme analysis . Some Croatians, however, became convinced that Plavac Mali was the same as Zinfandel, among them Croatian-born winemaker Mike Grgich. In 1991, Grgich and other producers came together as the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) with the objectives of promoting the varietal and wine, and supporting scientific research on Zinfandel . With this support, UCD professor Carole Meredith went to Croatia and collected over 150 samples of Plavac Mali  throughout Dalmatia in collaboration with the University of Zagreb .
In 1993, Meredith used a DNA fingerprinting technique to confirm that Primitivo and Zinfandel are clones of the same variety . Comparative field trials have found that “Primitivo selections were generally superior to those of Zinfandel, having earlier fruit maturity, similar or higher yield, and similar or lower bunch rot susceptibility  . This is consistent with the theory that Primitivo was selected as an early-ripening clone of a Croatian grape.
By 1998, Meredith’s team realized that Plavac Mali was not Zinfandel, but rather that one was the parent of the other. In 2000, they discovered that Primitivo/Zinfandel was one parent of Plavac Mali . The other parent of Plavac Mali was determined by Ivan Pejić and Edi Maletić (University of Zagreb) to be Dobričić, an ancient variety from the Adriatic island of zebic.
Some great Zins include Segesio Family Vinyards. This is a 2010 for about $24.00. Cakebread co Sellers has a spectacular old vine zin for about $30. 7 deadly zins is quite good for about $14.00. Some fantastic Primitivo includes Layer Cake Primitivo for about $14.00 and Matane Primitivo Di Manduria Il Matane 2012 Primitivo from Southern Italy, Italy for about $21.00.
This winter discover the fantastic attributes of Zinfandel and Primitivo. You will be glad you did!
Ray Spaziani is the Chapter Director of the New Haven Chapter of the American Wine Society. He teaches wine appreciation classes at Gateway Community College and the Milford Board of Education as well as Moltose wine and beer making suppliers, and is a member of the International Tasting Panel of Amenti Del Vino and Wine Maker Magazine. He is an award winning home wine maker. Email Ray with your wine questions and wine events at email@example.com.