Dear Wine Witch: My husband was born in Puglia and grew up drinking Primitivo. He insists that Primitivo is the same grape as California Zinfandel. I like Zinfandel, but I don’t taste any similarity between Zin and his Italian Primitivo. I don’t think he does either because he always prefers the Italian version. What’s going on here? –Deborah di Donato
Dear Deborah: Your husband is correct that Zinfandel and Primitivo are one and the same. But that doesn’t mean that they obviously taste alike. The grape variety originated in Croatia and migrated from there to Italy in the 18th Century, arriving on the east coast of the United States in the 19th Century. Arrival times in both countries are well documented, but only recently after the advent of DNA fingerprinting was it possible to determine without doubt that Zinfandel and Primitivo were genetically equivalent to one another and to their older Croatian counterpart.
Over time, the grape variety might have undergone slight character changes in different countries. But flavor differences are due mostly to how the grape matures in different climates and how the wine is made. Most California winemakers, regardless of climate conditions at the vineyard location, allow Zinfandel to ripen to high sugar levels, which spike the alcohol content and reduce acid and tannin so that the wine is very smooth and has sweet, fruity flavors. If you look for the alcohol content on the label, it is commonly around 15% and higher. Italians are likely to pick the grapes earlier so that alcohol is lower and acid and tannins are more apparent. These two stylistic approaches can make a huge difference in the overall flavor of the wine. Apparently, your husband likes his wines more structured, and you like softer and fruitier flavors.
The European Union considers Primitivo and Zinfandel to be synonymous and allows either name on a label although premium wines are likely to be called Primitivo. In the U.S., the regulatory body does not yet consider the names interchangeable, which is at best humorous since the American professor Carol Meredith from the University of California, Davis conducted definitive experiments in 1993. California winemakers with an Italian enthusiasm are likely to seek out clones that come directly from Puglia and to call those wines Primitivo. If you were to taste a California Primitivo, made in the normal California style, you would not be able to tell the difference between that wine and Zinfandel because there would not be any.
By the way, many common grape varieties will taste almost unrecognizably different when made in Europe or California with the exception of Cabernet Sauvignon, which has such strong flavor identity that, regardless of style, it clearly announces its presence, even in a blend. Chardonnay, on the other hand, can taste very different, depending on ripeness and alcohol content, how it was fermented, and whether or not it was exposed to oak barrels. The science of wine has become complicated, but drinking wines from various countries with discernable styles helps you to identify the type of wine that you prefer.