Aren’t Primitivo and Zinfandel the same grape?

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

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

Red Wines Zinfandel Ask Dr. Vinny

More In Dr. Vinny

When will wine from Virginia get the recognition it deserves?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why Virginia's wines aren't more well-known on …

Jul 31, 2020

Why do Champagne bubbles come from the bottom of my glass?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains carbon dioxide "nucleation sites."

Jul 29, 2020

What's the best way to keep a bottle of wine chilled while traveling?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers tips for keeping your wine cool once it's left the …

Jul 27, 2020

Can I make wine from raisins?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why dried-out grapes can make for some pretty …

Jul 24, 2020

Why are red wine grapes fermented with the grape skins but white wine grapes aren’t?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why white wines aren't made with grape skin …

Jul 22, 2020

When I taste a dry, non-sparkling white wine, I sometimes get a fizzy sensation. What is that?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers a few possible explanations for a bubbly or fizzy …

Jul 20, 2020