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samedi, 19 janvier 2013




Claude Gilois

There are undoubtedly organoleptic similarities between Zinfandel from California, Plavač Mali from Damaltia in Croatia, and Primitivo from Southern Italy.  One could be forgiven for thinking that it is  one grape variety growing in different regions of the world. It has taken about 40 years of meticulous detective work, of analyses and research undertaken by scientists, ampelograph specialists and historians to finally uncover the origins of Zinfandel, their conclusions confirm but also, surprisingly, deny what we suspected.



An old zinfandel on the Lytton Springs vineyard in California

Furthermore, the endless and eventful hunt did confer a special place to Zinfandel, quasi mythical, in the search that has mobilised so many people from different walks of life in the discovery of the origins of grape varieties since DNA sequencing became a common tool of analysis.




A Californian origin was very unlikely as there was no Vitis Vinifera on the American continent before the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in Mexico in 1519, viticulture then spread north and south of Mexico. However, Zinfandel was not a Spanish grape variety nor was it even European. 


A discovery in the specialised literature in the nineteenth century suggested a Hungarian origin. In his book ‘Zinfandel, a History of a Grape and its Wines’ [1] published in 1820, Charles Sullivan reveals that the first plant of this variety was imported from the Imperial Botanical Garden of  Schőnbrunn in Vienna to a nursery on Long Island in the United States. For many decades it was grown in the north east of America and vinified to be consumed as table wine.


It was another nursery owner, Frederick  Macondray, who decided to send it to California in 1852 under the name of Zinfandel. Its versatility and adaptability to the Californian terroir did wonders and it developed rapidly to meet the demands of thirsty gold diggers of the great westward gold rush.

However,  its presence at the Imperial Botanical Institute at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not constitute absolute proof of a possible Magyar origin.



A major breakthrough in the identification of its origin took place in 1967 when Dr Austin Goheen, a scientist from UC Davis, who was visiting the Italian region of Puglia tasted the local wine called Primitivo.  He noted that it was very much reminiscent of the Zinfandel from California. He then asked to see the vineyard and concluded that Zinfandel and  Primitivo were probably one and the same grape variety.



However,  it did not solve the problem of the origins of Zinfandel or Primitivo as they are not indigenous grape varieties and indeed not a single  document relating to Italian viticulture mentions Primitivo as part of the ampelographic heritage of Italy. All sorts of theories were then elaborated [II], none of which were really convincing until DNA sequencing came along which confirmed that Primitivo and Zinfandel were the same grapes. However, DNA sequencing showed that Plavač Mali  was not Primitivo or Zinfandel and therefore the original grape variety still had to be found. The Croatian origin was raised again  under the influence of Mike Grgith, a well-known Croatian working in the Californian wine industry. It was far from a unanimous track but it attracted the attention of Dr Carole Meredith, professor of Genetics at UC Davis. In May 1998 she traveled to Croatia, under the authority of both UC Davis and the agricultural department of Zagreb University. They selected 150 samples of vines coming from 40 different vineyards.



A classic Plavač Mali vineyard on the Dalmatian island of Hvar

Analyses conducted at UC Davis confirmed that  Plavač Mali  and Zinfandel-Primitivo were different grape varieties but that they were intricately linked either as parents or offspring. Furthermore, it became obvious that they shared many common characteristics with other Croatian varieties such as Plavina,   Grk, Crljenak Viški and Vranac. The Croatian origin was therefore established [III] but where   was the ancestral variety, which had given birth to all three varieties. Had it disappeared as a result of mutation or hybridisation ?  An appeal was launched to all owners of vineyards to report to the university all vines that could potentially  be Zinfandel. It was only in 2001, when most people started to despair of ever finding  the old ‘Croatian Zinfandel’ that an old variety called Crljenak Katelanški (pronounced: tzurlyenik kashtelyansky) was discovered, at Kaštela.   One year  later, an old variety called Pribidrag was also discovered near the town of Olmi. Only 25 vines remain today and historical research has shown that the variety Pribidrag had been  present  in Dalmatia for at least 500 years.


The only remaining work was then to discover with which grape variety  Pribidrag or Crljenak Kastekanški (the two names chosen to identify the original Zinfandel) had been crossed with to give the Plavac Mali-Zinfandel.  Additional DNA analyses confirmed that Prididrag had been crossed (probably naturally) with Dobričić (pronounced: dobritchitche) another indigenous Croatian variety to produce Plavač Mali-Zinfandel.


So finally we came full circle and gave the origin of Zinfandel (that had never belonged to California) back to Croatia.



Mike Grgith, the Californian-Croatian who influenced the search of the origin of Zinfandel towards Croatia

[i]        Sullivan L Charles (2003) : a history of its grape and its wines University of California Press. Berkeley.

[ii]       N. Mirośević and C.P. Meidith (2000). A review and research of literature related to the origin and identity of the cutivars Plavac mali, Zinfandel and Primitivo (Vitis Vinifera L.) Agriculturae Conspectus Scientificus 65:45-49.

[iii]        Maletić E., Pejić J. Koroglan Kontić, J. Piljac, G.S. Dangi, A. Vokurka, T. Lacombe, N. Mirośević and  C.P. Meridith (2004). Zinfandel, Dobričicć and Plavac mali: The Genetic Relationship among three cultivars of the Damatian Coast of Croatia. Am J Enol Vitic 55 (2):174-180.

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