26 January 2023 Since ZinEx, a three-day celebration of Zinfandel, kicks off this evening in San Francisco, we’re dedicating our Throwback Thursday to the variety, with a story on its complex history. See also Sam Cole-Johnson’s recent story.
13 May 2017 A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Celebrating Tribidrag in Croatia.
Could the name of a wine grape possibly be political? Very much so, to judge from a recent conference I attended that was provocatively entitled 'I am Tribidrag' by its organisers Professors Edi Maletič and Ivan Pejič.
The day-long session of tastings and presentations was held in the Croatian resort of Split, a name that became increasingly apt as the proceedings wore on.
We began reasonably harmoniously with the American Professor Emerita Carole Meredith (seen below with California's 'king of Zinfandel' Joel Peterson on the left and David Gates of Ridge Vineyards on the right) telling the truly gripping story of how she tried to establish the original European identity of the grape that dominated California wine production for over a century until it was overtaken by Cabernet Sauvignon in 1992. The variety, a member of the European vine species responsible for virtually all wine made today, is known in the US as Zinfandel and at its best can yield spicy, robust, long-lived reds.
For decades historians and growers posited wilder and wilder theories about its origins until it was established that it had been imported by a Long Island nurseryman from a vast collection in Vienna of all the vines grown in the Hapsburg empire. But that still left much unexplained.
In the late 1960s California grape scientist Austin Goheen had remarked on a striking similarity between Zinfandel and the grape Puglians call Primitivo but it was not until 1996 that the science of DNA profiling had advanced sufficiently to prove that these two varieties were identical.
This was not all that helpful however since the Puglians knew that this was an imported variety, possibly from across the Adriatic. Meredith had long suspected the original was Plavac Mali, southern Croatia’s dominant red wine grape. As the world’s leading expert in applying DNA profiling to wine grapes (it was she who proved that Cabernet Sauvignon is the progeny of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc), she kept testing various samples of Plavac Mali and found many similarities but failed to prove identity. She was exasperated.
But, she told us, ‘10 December 1997 was my lucky day, when Ivan Pejić emailed me.’ She’d been looking for a suitably well-informed contact to help her ‘Zinquest’ in Croatia while Pejič, Professor of Plant Breeding at the University of Zagreb, contacted her because, prior to Croatia’s accession to the EU in 2013, he needed someone to analyse the DNA of the country’s indigenous wine grapes.
For four years Pejič and his colleague Edi Maletič collected hundreds of vine samples from all over Croatia for Meredith to test in her lab in Davis, although it was a slow process that could proceed only when vines were in leaf. DNA profiling showed that many of these plants were closely related to Zinfandel but none was identical.
But finally by 2002 they had found eight vines in Kaštel Novi close to Split whose DNA matched Zinfandel’s. They were called locally Crljenak Kaštelanski, or Crljenak of Kaštel. Over the next two years they tracked down 16 more genetically identical vines, in two different locations, with the local name of Pribidrag.
An old Croatian ampelography cited Tribidrag as an ancient local variety and finally in 2008, thanks to a new technique, they were able to analyse the DNA of the century-old dried leaf samples in this herbarium and establish conclusively that Tribidrag, Pribidrag, Crljenak, Primitivo and Zinfandel are one and the same variety.
A historian was despatched to study the trading archives of Venice, which of course controlled this part of the world for so long. He found a written record of a barrel of Tribidrag sent from Venice to Puglia in 1488 and, significantly for the variety’s reputation, its wine was clearly made for the nobility.
Our conference was timed to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the discovery of the Croatian connection, and the locals have clearly been well-briefed over the years. Our taxi driver, ignorant of my connection with wine, volunteered that the Split area is the birthplace of Zinfandel, and one of the conference attendees was wearing a sports shirt boasting that Zinfandel was ‘born in Kaštela’.
We even had the deputy American ambassador attend from Zagreb, telling the Croatians that the story of Zinfandel could be said to be a story of the American dream, how a poor European immigrant crossed the Atlantic and prospered, ‘fostering new connections between our two countries'.
But, because the mystery of its origins persisted for so long, this grape is in the unusual position of going under several different names commercially, even within Croatia.
Confusingly, the great majority of the produce of the almost 100 ha (250 acres) of vineyard planted with the variety rapidly before the EU ban on new plantings came into effect, is labelled Crljenak, but Croatian wines labelled Zinfandel or Primitivo are not unknown. Much of the plant material was imported from Italy. Below is the Kraljevski (royal) vineyard near Zadar overlooking the Adriatic with, typically, islands beyond.
Worldwide, Zinfandel is clearly the most important name quantitatively. But a considerable quantity of powerful Puglian red is sold as Primitivo. And in our 2012 book Wine Grapes, the most comprehensive survey there is of all grapes that produce wine commercially although I say it myself, we adopted Tribidrag at the variety’s prime name as this seemed to be the oldest.
Hence the name of this conference designed by Pelič and Maletič to shine a spotlight on the grape via presentations of its wines from California, Puglia, Croatia and a ragbag of examples from around the world assembled by me and my co-author the grape geneticist Dr José Vouillamoz.
But all was not peace and light. I found myself thinking of the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty as, at the end of every presentation on the variety, a member of the five-strong Montenegrin delegation rose to their feet to insist that its real origins are not Croatian but in Montenegro, where it is known as Kratošija.
Unfortunately, we were unable to source any Montenegrin example for our Rest of the World tasting, although we did manage to find a rather lacklustre Albanian one and it is clear that the grape originated somewhere in the political cauldron that is the Balkans.
Meredith, originally a career scientist who on her 55th birthday swapped university bureaucracy for her own Napa Valley vineyard, where she produces, inter alia, a Zinfandel she calls Tribidrag, reckons we will probably never know exactly where the grape originated. To judge from all the close relatives of the variety that exist there, its origins are almost certainly close to the Adriatic coast because further inland would be too cold.
Does it matter where it originated? For marketing reasons, surely yes.
Carlisle, Montafi Ranch Zinfandel 2013 Russian River Valley
Frog’s Leap Zinfandel 2013 Napa Valley
Ravenswood, Old Hill Zinfandel 2008 and 2013 Sonoma Valley
Ridge, Lytton Springs 2014 Dry Creek Valley
Turley, Judge Bell Vineyard Zinfandel 2013 Amador
Felline, Cuvee Anniversario Riserva 2010 Primitivo di Manduria
Stina Crljenak 2012 Brač
Zlatan Crljenak 2011 Makarska
Cape Mentelle Zinfandel 2015 Margaret River
You can find tasting notes on all these wines in Celebrating Tribidrag in Croatia, and stockists from Wine-Searcher.com. See our database for 300+ Zinfandel tasting notes. (And that’s not counting wines labelled Tribidrag, Crljenak or Primitivo!)