FOR years Italian and Californian winemakers argued whether primitivo or zinfandel was the better grape. Imagine their chagrin, then, when DNA experts concluded they are, in effect, the same – or, to be technically correct, probably clones of an obscure Croatian grape.
There is still room for debate, though, as even DNA evidence will not make the wines identical. Factors such as latitude, terroir and, of course, what exactly the winemaker does will make sure of that. Think, for example, of the way the same grape produces both chablis and the traditional blockbuster chardonnays of Australia.
Primitivo and zinfandel are, however, pretty similar – though the former tends to ripen earlier (which is where the ‘primo’ part comes from), and that can help to keep alcohol levels a little lower. Climate also plays a part in zinfandel’s extra ripeness (and, hence, higher sugar levels and consequent alcohol). Although the traditional home of primitivo, in the heel of Italy, has the higher average summer temperatures, California tends to have more hours of sunshine and less rain.
A more practical comparison is simply to taste them – which is what we did. At the top of the primitivos was 2010 Surani Costarossa Primitivo di Manduria (£7.99 as part of a mixed case of six, Majestic). This is a full and fruity blackcurrant-centred wine that has none of the heaviness of more clumsy versions and embodies some appealing soft, figgy and spice undercurrents. At this price, it also represents terrifically good value.
High marks also went to 2008 A-Mano Primitivo (£8.50, WoodWinters), a top-seller in the US – which is unsurprising, really, when you discover Mark Shannon, the winemaker, learnt much of his trade in California. Here, the major fruits are cherry and raspberry but with bright touches of minty blackcurrant to supplement it and a black pepper and plum stone finish that provides added mellowness.
When it comes to zinfandel, the price banding tends to be higher. For a less expensive glimpse, try 2009 Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel (£9.89, www.drinksdirect.co.uk), with all its trademark big, concentrated blackcurrant and raspberry fruit coupled with a hint of mint. Even entry-point examples like this illustrate the philosophy of Ravenswood’s founder, Joel Peterson, when he coined the phrase ‘No wimpy wines here’.
Equally un-wimpy is 2009 Brazin Zinfandel Lodi (£9.99, down from £12.99 until 11 September, Waitrose). Here, the alcohol level goes up from the 14.5 per cent of the Ravenswood to 15 per cent (reflected in the slightly hot finish) – but the sweetness also goes up a notch, as does the intensity of the black cherry and plum fruit and the figgy, vanilla and chocolate finish. The tasters judged this to be the authentic taste of blockbuster zin and all that expression implies.
Since the top zinfandels tend to come from a little further west, we next sampled wine from an estate that uses vines in Dry Creek Valley and was created by (you’ve guessed it) an Italian immigrant, Edoardo Seghesio. The 2009 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel (£34, WoodWinters) is a bird of a very superior feather. Apart from its monster 16 per cent alcohol, it also has a port-like consistency with beautiful smoothness and a complex finish that includes a touch of pepper and other spices. But the star component is the layers of concentrated black cherry, blackcurrant and other dark fruits. Some of the vines this uses date back to 1920 and all are from the first half of the last century, as older vines tends to keep yields low and concentration high.
So what are the conclusions? Well, the strong similarities between these wines (weight, colour and a propensity for blackcurrant and bramble-based fruit) certainly re-affirm their close relationship, but there are differences.
If you prefer straightforward wine that is not coy about its tannin content and provides reasonable touches of acidity, opt for primitivo. Alternatively, go for zinfandel if concentrated wine with smoother, sweeter structures and bigger slugs of alcohol are the ones for you. However, if you have catholic tastes – like mine – avoid agonising over which wine is the better and simply enjoy them both.
2011 Château de la Jaubertie Bergerac, France, 13.5 per cent This is a lovely blend with fresh apple and pear flavours, attractive aromatic floral touches from the muscadelle it contains and a whiff of chalky minerality within its semillon-based depth. Perfect to toast an Indian summer. £8.95, www.fromvineyardsdirect.com
2011 Castillo Las Almenas Tinto Valencia, Spain, 13 per cent This Spanish take on the classic Rhône blend delivers appealing, smooth and soft cherry-centred fruit, rich and nutty undertones and long, peppery finish. £6.99, M&S
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