Aren’t Primitivo and Zinfandel the same grape?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Aren’t Primitivo and Zinfandel the same grape? I thought so, but then I recently saw a wine that was a blend of Primitivo and Zinfandel.

—Jenna, Napa, Calif.

Dear Jenna,

Genetically, these two grapes are extremely similar—it took some DNA fingerprinting to figure it out—but Primitivo and Zinfandel are actually both clones of a Croatian grape called Crljenak.

Cloning isn’t a bad word when it comes to grapes—it doesn’t mean laboratory-based genetic mutations or (worse) futuristic, animated Star Wars-inspired armies. A grape clone is simply a genetic subtype that occurs naturally and in some cases is encouraged by the grower. Grapes are very adaptable, and they mutate very easily. If a grower sees a vine that is preferable for its berry size, cluster formation or ripening characteristics, it’s as easy as grafting a cutting onto an already established vine, and ta da! You are propagating a clone.

Some clones are so indisputably unique that they get called by a new varietal name. For example, Pinot Meunier is a clone of Pinot Noir. In the case of Primitivo/Zinfandel, I can’t say that I’ve noticed a significant enough difference that I couldn’t chalk up to either terroir or winemaking style, so I’m not really sure how to describe the differences. I’ve heard that Primitivo ripens earlier than Zinfandel, which can result in lower-alcohol wines.

Even though Primitivo and Zinfandel have been considered synonyms for years, U.S. labeling laws don’t allow them to be used interchangeably, hence the Primitivo/Zinfandel blend you refer to. In this case, the wine is made from two different clones of the same grape. European labeling laws are different, so European wineries may call Primitivo “Zinfandel” and vice versa, but American wineries may not. In 2002, a proposal was made to allow the names to be interchangeable in the United States, but it has not has been acted on. Yet.

—Dr. Vinny

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