The red grape variety comes from Croatia. Synonyms grouped alphabetically by country are Morellone, Primaticcio, Primativo, Primitivo, Primitivo di Gioia, Uva di Corato, Zagarese(Italy); Crljenac Kaštelanski, Crljenak Kaštelanski, Pribidrag, Trebidrag(Croatia); Grakošija, Gratošija, Krakošija, Kratkošica, Kratkošija, Kratkošija Crna, Kratošija, Kratošijo(Montenegro); Zinfandel(USA). It must not be confused with the Blatina, Crljenak Crni, Plavac Mali or Vranac varieties, despite the fact that synonyms or morphological similarities appear to indicate this. According to DNA analyses carried out by the two Californian scientists Dr. Carole Meredith and John Bowers at the University of California in cooperation with Croatian and Italian vine specialists from 1994 to 2011, the decades of unclear identity have been clarified:
The Croatian Tribidrag (in older sources still Crljenak Kaštelanski), the Italian Primitivo, the Californian Interest rate trading and the Montenegrin Kratošija are genetically (almost) identical. The variety is therefore also called ZPC = Zinfandel / Primitivo / Crljenak Kaštelanski. Primitivo and Tribidrag/Zinfandel are not 100% identical according to DNA analyses, but are considered to be one grape variety. According to the ampelographic rule, a variety is designated by the oldest name used, which is why the name Tribidrag, already mentioned in the 15th century, was suggested in the "Wine Grapes"grape variety bible. The varieties have developed somewhat differently over the last 200 years in terms of ripening time, susceptibility to disease and taste. Zinfandel has its own history in the USA, so there is a special keyword for it.
The earliest mention of Primitivo was in 1799 by the priest and amateur botanist Francesco Filippo Indellicati (1767-1831) from the parish of Gioia del Colle (Bari province) in the Puglia region. He discovered the rare vine in his vineyard. He noticed its early ripening at the end of August (which is true of the Primitivo clone of the time), which is why he coined the name "Primativo" or "Primaticcio" from the Latin "primativus" for "first ripening end". At that time it was named Zagarese (allegedly after the Croatian city of Zagreb). Indellicati planted the vine close to his native village, from where it spread to other Apulian areas until 1820. However, it was not until 1860 that the current name Primitivo became established.
During a trip to Puglia in 1967, the US plant pathologist Austin Goheen noticed the similarity of Primitivo wine to Zinfandel wine. He took Primitivo vines to the USA for comparison purposes. On the basis of his investigations, which were based purely on external criteria, he suspected that Primitivo could be identical to the variety Zinfandel. He sent the vines to the University of California at Davis for further analysis, where they were planted. In 1975, Wade Wolf, a student at the University of California in Davis, found that isozyme analyses revealed very similar patterns (DNA analyses were not available at that time). This was perceived by the public as a match and led to the beginning of the "battle over Zinfandel". Because in the USA, people did not want to accept that the variety Zinfandel, which was considered "UAE", should not be independent.
As early as the 18th century it was assumed that Primitivo originated in Dalmatia (Croatia). In the mid-1970s Austin Goheen contacted Prof. Franco Lamberti at the University of Bari, who had visited Croatian vineyards together with Prof. Ana Sarić from the University of Zagreb. There Lamberti had found great similarities between Croatian varieties called Plavac Mali and Plavina with Primitivo. Goheen then received Plavac Mali vines from Sarić in 1979 and found out by means of isozyme analysis that the two varieties are not identical. Nevertheless, the rumour of a match spread and was also fed by Croatian producers who wanted to market their wines in the USA under Zinfandel. In 1985 the BATF banned the use of the name Zinfandel. The well-known Croatian-born winemaker Miljenko "Mike" Grgich (*1923) therefore suggested that more detailed investigations be carried out.
As mentioned above, Carole Meredith and colleagues had already established the equality of Primitivo and Zinfandel in 1994 (this resulted in the EU officially allowing the synonym Zinfandel for Primitivo from 1999 onwards, the objection by the competent US authority BATF was rejected). Now the Plavac-Mali question should also be clarified. From 1998 onwards, about 150 vines of this variety were sent from Croatia to Meredith in California. In the year 2000, DNA analyses there determined that Plavac Mali is a direct descendant of Primitivo/Zinfandel. And four years later, the Croatian vine specialists Ivan Pejić and Edi Maletić from the University of Zagreb identified the Croatian variety Dobričić as the second parent. Finally, in 2007 in Croatia it was found that the Plavina variety is a cross between the Apulian Verdeca x Primitivo/Zinfandel. Further close parent-offspring relationships between at least four Croatian varieties and Primitivo/Zinfandel conclusively confirmed the Croatian origin.
In 2000, the identity of the Croatian original variety had not yet been clarified. One descendant (Plavac Mali) was known, but the vine in question as parent (besides the later identified Dobričić) had not yet been found. If the variety really came from here, there should still be vines as ultimate proof. Of course, the variety could already be extinct. Ivan Pejić and Edi Maletić kept sending to California potential vines that they found in old Dalmatian vineyards. Finally, in December 2001, they were finally successful when they found an unknown vine in an old vineyard of the winemaker Ivica Radunić in Kastel Novi near Split. It was named Crljenak Kaštelanski (Red of Kaštela) after the place where it was found. The DNA profile was identical with Primitivo/Zinfandel. Later another nine vines were found.
In 2002, a genetically identical vine called Pribidrag was discovered in the garden of an old lady in the community Svinisće near Omis, south of Split. And also the vine grown in Montenegro under the name Kratošija was recognized as identical in 2008. In 2006, in a vineyard on the Badische Bergstrasse in Germany, the Blauer Scheuchner variety, which used to be widespread here, was rediscovered. It is suspected to be a tribidrag, but no DNA analyses have been carried out yet. The crowning achievement finally came in 2011, when Ivan Pejić and Edi Maletić identified the ancient Croatian variety called Tribidrag, which was already cultivated in the Split region in the 15th century, as the original variety. By the way, this name, like Primitivo, means "early ripening". The riddle of the variety/s was now finally solved.
As already mentioned, Primitivo (Italy) is morphologically somewhat different from the more similar Tribidrag (Croatia) and Zinfandel (California). Primitivo ripens earlier, is more productive (but smaller berries) and less susceptible to botrytis. The vine produces dark, spicy, alcohol-rich red wines with aromas of cinnamon, mint, chocolate, cloves, pepper, black cherries, blackberries and raspberries. In Italy, a total of 12,234 hectares were designated under the Primitivo name in 2010. It is mainly grown in Puglia, where it is authorised for the three DOC red wines Falerno del Massico, Gioia del Colle and Primitivo di Manduria. In Croatia the variety was almost extinct. Since the declaration of identity there has been a certain boom; in 2010 65 hectares were designated. There are other small populations in Europe in France (in Languedoc under Zinfandel), Montenegro (under the name Kratkošija) and Northern Macedonia.
In the USA, a total of 19,857 hectares were designated under the common name Zinfandel in 2010, and the trend is rising (ten years earlier, the figure was 18,630 hectares). By far the largest part of this is located in California, at around 19,000 hectares (see the historical information regarding the introduction in the USA under Zinfandel). With smaller quantities almost exclusively under interest-rate trading, it was also represented in 2010 in Australia (149 ha), Canada (58 ha), Chile (58 ha), Israel, Israel (8 ha), Mexico, New Zealand (4 ha), South Africa (34 ha) and Tunisia (337 ha). In 2010, the variety occupied a total of 32,745 hectares of vineyards under its various denominations. This puts it in 29th place in the worldwide grape variety ranking.
Source: Wine Grapes / J. Robinson, J. Harding, J. Vouillamoz / Penguin Books Ltd. 2012
Pictures: Ursula Brühl, Doris Schneider, Julius Kühn Institute (JKI)