Primitivo: Zinfandel's close cousin slowly growing in popularity

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceNovember 5, 2013 


The wine is inky red-black, hearty and smooth, sturdy but not too tannic, redolent of black raspberries, chocolate and spice. It would be great with your rich and multi-flavored Thanksgiving dinner.

It's called primitivo. It's made in California now, and growing in popularity â€" slowly.

Such a nice wine. Why isn't it soaring? The public doesn't understand it. And experts have been arguing over it for years.

It reminds most tasters of zinfandel. For good reason.

DNA testing now says primitivo and zinfandel are different clones of the same grape. (A grape clone is created when a grapevine undergoes a slight, natural genetic variation, and cuttings are made from that vine to create more vines with the same flavor and other characteristics.)

Clones can make a big difference. In chardonnay, for example, the Wente clone produces small grapes that make a crisp, lemony wine while the Dijon clone makes richer, softer chardonnay. Similar differences exist in clones of all grapes, red or white.

The problem is that the differences between primitivo and zinfandel are very small. I asked Antoine Favero, winemaker at Soda Rock Winery in California's Sonoma County, how he would tell the two apart in a blind tasting.

"Ohhh, it's so hard. I don't think you can tell."

Then why go to the trouble of making primitivo?

Favero works for Diane and Ken Wilson, who own eight vineyards in and around Sonoma County. Years ago they grew only zinfandel.

"Then we decided to diversify a bit among the wineries. In (Sonoma's) Dry Creek area we focus on zin. We thought, what can we do that's different from Dry Creek? We thought about our vineyards in (Sonoma's) Alexander Valley. Well, let's try primitivo. And let's make a damn good one."

Zinfandel has long been America's grape, known here since at least 1832. At first, experts believed it originated in Italy as primitivo.

More recent studies said the origin of both primitivo and zinfandel is not Italy, but elsewhere in Europe. Evidence now points to Croatia, to a grape called crljenak â€" pronounced KRELL-je-nack, Favero said.

Whatever its origins, primitivo is made in small quantities at the wineries listed in the tasting notes and a few others. It is not distributed nationwide.

"We sell it only at the wineries and online," Favero said. Soda Rock's website is

Why buy primitivo if it's so close to zinfandel? Well, you can be the first kid on the block to do so. You can amaze your friends.

Part of Favero's job now is to educate people about primitivo. He's optimistic.

"Not too many people know about it. But we're going to hang our hat on it. We will make it the best we can.

"Pretty soon maybe we won't have enough to go around."

Highly recommended:

2011 Soda Rock Winery Reserve Primitivo, Alexander Valley: rich and creamy, with aromas and flavors of black plums and bitter chocolate; $48.

2011 Mayo Family Winery Primitivo, "Rossi Ranch," Sonoma Valley: aromas and flavors of black raspberry jam and bittersweet chocolate, powerful tannins; $35.

2011 DeLorimier Winery Primitivo, "Osborn Ranches," Alexander Valley: hearty black raspberry jam aromas and flavors, very rich, concentrated, bitter chocolate finish; $36.


2011 Mutt Lynch Winery Primitivo, Knight's Valley: aromas and flavors of black raspberries and bitter chocolate, hearty, full-bodied; $25.

2011 Wilson Winery Estate Primitivo, "McClain," Alexander Valley: sweet black cherry and milk chocolate flavors, soft, rich; $36.

2011 Soda Rock Winery Primitivo, Alexander Valley: red raspberry and bittersweet chocolate, quit dry; $34.

2011 Soda Rock Winery Primitivo "Los Amigos," Chalk Hill: bright red raspberry and pure bittersweet chocolate aromas and flavors, hearty; $36.

2011 DeLorimier Winery Primitivo, "The Station," Alexander Valley: black cherry and bittersweet chocolate flavors, medium body; $30.

2011 DeLorimier Winery Reserve Primitivo, "The Station," Alexander Valley: black cherry and bittersweet chocolate aromas and flavors; $44.

2011 DeLorimier Winery, "River Lane," Alexander Valley: intense black cherry and bitter chocolate aromas and flavors, medium body, long finish; $36.

2011 Matrix Winery Primitivo, Los Amigos Vineyard, Russian River Valley: aromas and flavors of red raspberries and milk chocolate, sweet and smooth; $32.

2011DeLorimier Winery Primitovo, "River Lane," Alexander Valley: black cherry and bitter chocolate aromas and flavors, medium body, long finish; $36.

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