Primitivo or Zinfandel?
It was only late in 2001 that a Californian Professor and Geneticist, Dr Carole Meredith used DNA profiling to conclusively prove that both Zinfandel and the Italian favourite, Primitivo was in fact a Croatian grape, known as Crlenak Kastelanski. Until then, the Americans and Italians had both claimed the grape as a national native, but the revelation hasn’t changed the demand for either style, such that in the United States, Zinfandel is now the second most planted red wine varietal behind Cabernet!
Californians in particular, have a love affair with the style and that they now have almost 60000 acres of Zinfandel vines planted across the State. It’s hard to miss if you walk in to just about any bottle shop in the USA. In the Primitivo heartland of Puglia (which is situated in the “heel of the boot” of Italy), the grape’s presence has rapidly increased in recent times to over 28000 acres of plantings. It’s long been considered Bellissimo across all of Italy and not just in the Primitivo heartland in the south eastern corner of the mainland.
While we don’t really see many examples of the style produced here in Australia, the grape is developing a cult following with a growing band of loyal disciples. Which begs the question as to which is better – a Californian Zinfandel or a Puglian Primitivo?
Mottura Primitivo di Manduria 2015
For the sake of the exercise, I grabbed two bottles that are readily available here in Australia at a similar “$20 something” price point. For the Primitivo, it was the Mottura Primitivo di Manduria (2015) whilst to represent the United States, I picked up a Californian example from the Kendall-Jackson Vineyard – their Vintner’s Reserve 2015 (which you find at Dan Murphy’s for around $24).
And who better to pilot this test flight than my septuagenarian mother whose lips rarely sip any red wine from outside of South Australia! The original two pot screamer, Denise, was more than happy to be my proverbial guinea pig over a slow-cooked Chicken Korma on a recent chilly Sunday evening in front of the fireplace. “It’s so smooth that it must be a blend” she announced with the first blind sip (which I might say, was quickly followed by another!). Despite admitting to not being familiar with either Primitivo or Zinfandel, Denise likened the style to a “softly spoken Merlot”, or her daughter-in-law’s favourite, a GSM blend. But alas, neither guess was on the money. Not that I would have picked it either.
The Kendall-Jackson Zinfandel is a lovely crimson colour in the glass but slides into a pungent plum and cardamom abyss as soon as you take that first sip. There are hints of raspberry and blackberry nuances across the palate, while cedar and white pepper characters appear at the back end. There is a lingering spiciness through what is undoubtedly a seductive finish. It is not bad, but the mouthfeel is slightly hot and gives the impression of a wine that is perhaps (as the Texans say) “all hat and no cattle”.
The Mottura Primitivo di Manduria (2015) on the other hand may be only medium bodied, but the cherry and sweet bramble flavours only embolden through the palate and are joined by savoury cloves and cocoa characters through the mid-palate. There are some deliciously soft tannins through the finish but as my mother observed, it’s all about the smoothness of conclusion and the sweetness through the middle. I’m not going to pretend that it is necessarily a fair “apples against apples “comparison, but in this match-play, the Italian from Puglia clearly came out on top. It is not the World Cup, but the Puglians can at least rejoice in having taken out the first round!