When Is A Zin Not A Zin?

When it’s a Primitivo, naturally.

New world winemakers have, albeit grudgingly, abided by law that you cannot call a wine made outside of a given European region, by the name of that region. Champagne is only produced in Champagne, Bordeaux in Bordeaux, and so on. It isn’t the methods that differ, nor the grape varieties used, but the exquisite expression of the native terrior of the regions that the designation is intended to protect.

Some have made a sport of out skirting the issue by cleverly naming their wines with close approximation of their French counterparts. Fairview Wines has been at the forefront of the mischief, morphing French Cote-Roti into Goat-Roti, Cote d’Or into Goat Door, and Bordeaux into Bored Doe. Others have simply struck out in a new direction, labelling their efforts by creating new bits of wine vocabulary. California’s Meritage is varietally no different from a French Bordeaux for example, and Australian shiraz varies only stylistically from the syrah of the Rhone.

Zinfandel, or Primitivo, as it is known in Europe, is an interesting case. The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP), which was founded in 1991 on the crest of an explosion of Zinfandel interest, is an organization “dedicated to advancing public knowledge of and appreciation for American Zinfandel and its unique place in our culture and history” and also took a strong interest in examining genetic parentage. Long thought to be “America’s grape”, Zinfandel was the subject of extensive genetic testing to try and delineate its vinous heritage. In 1967, a UC Davis professor visiting Italy was struck by the similarity between a local grape, Primitivo, and American Zinfandel. He conducted further comparative studies and eventually found that the genetic makeup of the two varieties was identical.

Given the pattern of history, it would be expected that the European name would be restricted to European production, and the rule also holds true in this case. American Zinfandel exported to Europe must be labelled as such and may not use the Primitivo moniker in order to appeal to the European market. Conversely, it is a legal practice for Italian wines made from this variety to be marketed in North America as either Zinfandel or Primitivo. Many Italian producers may start looking to capitalize on the popularity of Zinfandel in the new world market by exporting their Italian wines under that varietal name. Understandably, this has some folks concerned about preserving the name and terroir-driven characteristics of “America’s grape” from the onslaught of foreign Primitivo.

Can American Zinfandel fend off the invaders?  Is there really that much to be concerned about?  Weigh in with your opinion in the comment section below.

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Reader Comments

Italian producers already are using the Zinfandel name on their wines

La Corte


not saying I’m in favor of it, I think the name Primitivo is sexier

Agreed Alfonso, the name Primitivo is eons sexier in my opinion as well. Kind of lusty and base.

Hi Erin,
No need to worry about the origins of Zin. Zin recognized as ‘Zin’ is American by all means. To me, Zin is as much different from Primitivo as Shiraz is from Syrah. In the Primitivo you have more of the Italian terroir (and vice-versa) and the organoleptics are quite different: not as huge and overwhelming as the American Zin. Matter of taste, but, to me, more a matter of marriage.
However, initially research fellows (btw: this Davis Professor was a ’she’: Carol Meredith) thought that Zin was imported from Puglia in Italy, but according to demographic and historiographic research this is not the case. It was already known that Zin and Primitivo closely resemble a Kroatian/Dalmatian cultivar Plavac mali. They do not descend from this varietal however. It turned out that Plavac itself was a descendant form a grape that was the same as Zin and Primitivo crossed with Dobricic. This cultivar, known by the name Crjelnak kastelanski, is by now almost extinct. It’s only to be found in a few small vineyards in Kroatia and on some small islands on the Kroatian coast.
So, most likely ‘Zin’ was imported from Kroatia, as was Primitivo several hundreds of years before Zin had it’s first roots in American soil.
If you want to try a very classic Primitivo and experience the difference in organoleptics, seek out the ‘Sessantanni’ from Feudi di San Marzano. This wine is made from vines that are 60 years old on average (!). This estate is protected by the Italian heritage trust as it’s a monument for the original Primitivo wines (as maybe Turley is for American Zin?).