California's Favourite Grape

Robin Lynam looks at the genealogy of Zinfandel and samples some very welcome offerings from the Ravenswood Winery, a Zinfandel specialist

Thanks to television crime shows such as the CSI franchise just about everyone now knows that human beings can be unequivocally identified from tissue samples by DNA analysis.
Not so widely known is that the same sort of detective work can be used to establish the identity and antecedents of a vine. The list of grapes used to make wine runs to thousands, but a fair number are actually of the same variety, or a close relation, but known under a number of different names.
Thus it is with California’s signature varietal, Zinfandel. Until the 1990s when its DNA “fingerprint” was first subjected to serious scrutiny it was generally believed that it was a native north American grape.
The first recorded references to it, spelled “Zinfandal” occur in Massachusetts in the 1830s, and by the late 1850s a grape called “Zeinfandell” was being cultivated in California, probably from cuttings transported from the East Coast of the United States.
By the 1880s it had become the state’s dominant cultivar, popular primarily because of the high volume of juice the grapes characteristically yield.
Over time it became apparent that Zinfandel could offer quality as well as quantity. It became the Californian equivalent to Australia’s Shiraz – ubiquitous and used to make both unambitious bulk wines and much more serious regionally distinctive vintages. Zinfandel was an all American grape.
Except that it wasn’t. Once the lab technicians started looking at “Zin’s” DNA, and checking it against the international grape database, it emerged that Zinfandel is a close relation to the unpronounceable Croatian Crljenak Kastelanski, and more or less identical to the Italian variety Primitivo.
The most popular current hypothesis as to the origin of American Zinfandel is that it was imported from Croatia. It is likely that it then made its way back across the Atlantic to Italy as Primitivo, probably after Phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century and American rootstock was imported, although it is possible that it was Primitivo that first travelled from Italy to the United States.


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