The journey of the old Croatian grape to a life of zin
wine writer RICHARD CALVER follows the progress of a humble Croatian to become California’s premier varietal.
FINISHING the week with a visit to the French Flair cellar door in Manuka and then having a good red with some Italian food at the Antica Ricetta next door was a pleasant end to a rather hectic work schedule.
This mix of locations is a celebration of the two European cultures and their food and wine, and offers a glimpse into other worlds that are comforting to embrace during an increasingly inhospitable Canberra winter.
At French Flair, we tasted four wines on offer, the most notable being Beaujolais, Domaine Des Bonnetieres 2019. It is a 100% Gamay red, a fruity and easy-drinking wine that disappeared in a flash. Bewitching, as is the tradition in November of each year to wait for the last vintage of Beaujolais and to enter the frenzy of buying and drinking that haunts this popular wine. A website tells me that 22 million bottles are exported each year from this extraordinarily prolific region.
In a few steps we enter the renovated Antica Ricetta and order pasta dishes and a bottle of Pasqua Desire Lush & Zin Primitivo Puglia 2020.
For a young wine, it had great color and a finish that improved with air. This is a bar that usually sells for $23-$25, up to $45 at the restaurant. It was a nice counterpoint to the burnt butter and sage sauce that covered the gnocchi I ordered with the complementarity of the different flavors obvious.
The name is a hoot. Primitivo is known as Zinfandel in California in particular, where it is recognized as an excellent variety for red wine. The “zin” in the name of our chosen dinner wine is a nod to this collision, and its similarity to the word “sin” is emphasized in the label art with the nomenclature expressed as if a tattoo on the back of a red-haired woman in a black dress.
Like many bottles of wine, it sparks an interesting narrative. The story of how this grape spread across the world is fascinating, as the variety apparently derives from Croatia where it is known as the Tribidrag variety.
An 18th-century priest loved the Croatian grape enough to plant vines in his native Italy, Liponti. Because the grapes ripened first, they were called “primitivo” which means the “first” and the name stuck.
The route from Croatia to the United States was in the early 19th century when a Boston horticulturist, George Gibbs, received the grapes via Vienna.
Here reigned the Habsburg emperor and this royal family had adopted the grapes and the pleasant wine they produced. Gibbs used the variety as a table grape which he named zenfendal, a resemblance to its Hapsburg Hungarian derived name tzinifandli. Gibbs and his vines followed the California Gold Rush in 1850. There the variety became Zinfandel and was planted as a vat variety in 1857. It has been California’s most populous grape ever since.
The fact that the varieties are identical was discovered by an American professor in 1967 during his visit to Puglia (the region where our dinner wine came from) and his instinct that the similarities were more than a coincidence was proven in 1968.
The final piece of the puzzle was put in place by other scholars who, using research from the 1960s and 1990s, identified the grape that originated on the Dalmatian coast.
“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.”
–Will and Ariel Durant
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Ian Meikle, editor