Two Sides of a Coin: Primitivo and Zinfandel (with Ribs Two Ways) #ItalianFWT

Identities can be so complicated. I mean, who are we all really?

In the case of wine grapes, advances in DNA profiling in recent decades have led to fascinating discoveries. In some cases, grapes thought to be one thing were determined to be something completely different. (It turns out I don’t know myself at all!)  Familial relationships between grapes have been discovered at times and disproved at others. (What?! I’m adopted?!) And in some cases, grapes have found they have doppelgangers living far far away.

No grape’s search for identity has been more of a roller coaster ride than Zinfandel’s. The search for its origins was even earned the nickname “Zinquest.”

Zin has often been seen as a quintessentially Californian grape, and many wanted to believe that it was native to this state, even though no Vitis vinifera vines are native to the US. (Growth of the Zin vines in California spread widely  with settlers that came to the state during the Gold Rush, and it had come to California even before that, but it's not actually from here.) Its true story started unraveling in the second half of the last century.

According to Wine Grapes, a plant pathologist named Austin Goheen visited Puglia in 1967 and happened to taste Primitivo wines that reminded him of Zinfandel. He sent cuttings to UC Davis, and soon various initial tests indicated that these two were likely the same grape. This was later confirmed in 1994 when Carole Meredith and her doctoral candidate John Bowers at Davis were proved through DNA profiling that these two were one and the same. 

I've had the pleasure of meeting Carole Meredith a couple of times now, and am always wowed by her knowledge.

For a long time, it was also believed that Zin/Primitivo is also the same as a Croatian grape called Plavac Mali. Mike Grgich, the legendary Croatian-born California winemaker, was a strong supporter of this idea and helped encourage Carole Meredith to find a connection, nonetheless, they kept coming up short. Ultimately, the Zinquest was successful in finding that another Dalmatian grape called Crljenak Kastelanski matched Zin’s DNA profile. It was also later found that the resemblance many saw in Plavac Mali was founded, as it was discovered that it’s an offspring of Zin/Primitivo/Crljenak Kastelanski.

The list of synonyms doesn’t end there though as it’s been found that the oldest name for this grape with many faces is Tribidrag, which dates back to the 15th century. Carole Meredith, who nowadays has a winery called Lagier-Meredith with her husband, chooses to label her Zin under this name.

If that road isn’t already long and winding enough, things do get a little more complicated. Even though these are all faces of the same grape, they are different clones, and it does change a bit in each place. According to Wine Grapes, Zinfandel bunches are more compact, berries are medium to large in size, and often ripen in a frustratingly uneven way. On the other hand, Primitivo tends to produce more grape bunches, but with fewer grapes that are often smaller. It also tends to be less prone is certain diseases like botrytis rot.

Given that there are some pretty big differences here, the idea that these grapes are actually the same was a pretty tough pill to swallow for many, and is still contested by some. In Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Ian D’Agata says, “Accepting this hasn’t been easy for anyone involved,” and goes on to describe the ire expressed by growers in both Puglia and California.  Nonetheless, all the major sources of wine info I’ve looked at list these names as synonyms for the same grape.

To make things even more confusing though, in the US the TTB doesn’t allow wineries to use the name interchangeably. If a winery bought a Primitivo vine, it must label the wine as “Primitivo,” and if the original vine was called Zinfandel, then that’s what goes on the bottle. Italian producers though can use whichever name they prefer.  It’s all enough to make you want to tear your hair out!

For my part, I make some sense of this all (in an incredibly geeky way) by considering various grape clones kind of like Cylons in Battle Star Gallactica. All the versions started out with the same specs and often retain similar characteristics, but as soon as they’re on the ground, their experiences and surroundings start to cause them to differ slightly.

For those of you who aren't quite so geeky, this is humanoid Cylon model number 8, also known as Sharon.

As you might guess, these differences lead to slightly different flavor profiles. Overall, in the case of both Zinfandel and Primitivo, you tend to see lots of big fruit flavors ranging through all the colors of the berry spectrum – raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry, blueberry – typically mixed with notes of sweet spices, vanilla, and chocolate. The wines tend to be medium to full-bodied, medium to medium+ tannins, and it tends to have medium+ to high levels of alcohol.

Broadly speaking, for me, the California versions tend to have a ripe to jammy sweet fruit quality, although good versions will have enough acidity in the wine to maintain balance. I love Zin, but nothing weighs a palate down like a bad one. You immediately understand what people mean by “flabby” wine when one of these crosses your lips. Good ones, on the other hand, can be layered and complex, with all of that fruit being perked up and elevated by a degree of brightness. (Ridge has been a favorite of ours from our earliest wine drinking days.)

Puglia is the big region for Primitivo in Italy, and Primitivo di Manduria is a key DOC for the grape. Rather than jammy fruit, I often get a dried fruit note from the Italian version, but kind of like craisin in that there’s also a tartness mixed in. The wines tend to be earthier, more tannic, and often have hints of bitter herbs and licorice mixed in.

It had been a long time since I’d had these takes on this grape side by side, so I decided it was time to revisit the comparison. In this case, both wines held up their end of the bargain and represented their camps admirably.

We’re on vacay, getting away from the world in desert landscapes. We’re also taking advantage of having a grill, which we don’t have at home, so I decided to make two versions of BBQ ribs to see how they each fared. Before we get there though, let’s take a look at the wines.




Rabble Wine Zinfandel Mossfire Ranch Paso Robles 2017

Price: $26 (I think I bought it for around $21 on sale.) | Alc. 14.5%

I picked up this bottle at a Whole Food’s on the way to our current location in Joshua Tree, and it was a new-to-me producer. The company was founded by Rob and Nancy Murray in 2011.  Rob is a long-time grower who has sold his grapes to many well-known wineries and also owns a vineyard management company, but he also has several lines of wines. (The Rabble line was formerly known as Force of Nature.) The website says the grapes also farmed sustainably. The wine is aged for 10 months in French and American oak barrels (25% new oak).

Tasting Notes: Raspberry, boysenberry, red plum, vanilla, cocoa, and anise. The wine had a lightly jammy mouthfeel but felt balanced as regards the acidity, and the tannins were smooth and ripe.

Podere 29 Aia Pervia Primitivo Puglia 2017

Price: $17 at K&L | Alc. 13.5%

This wine comes from a father and son team in Puglia that farm organically, with biodynamic principles. The wine is aged for 6 months in stainless steel tanks.

Tasting Notes: Black cherry, plums, raspberry. The fruit is a combo of juicy fruits, along with some more rasinated notes, along with hints of spice, bitter herbs, and savory umami notes. There’s good acidity to keep the wine feeling fresh, and the tannins were silky and easy-going This is a somewhat lighter style when compared to how big Primitivos from Puglia can get, particularly as the tannins weren’t particularly burly. Nonetheless, the flavors are a good intro to the style, balancing fruit with more savory and herbal hints.


Like I mentioned, we’ve been trying to take advantage of having a grill while on vacation since that’s not really a possibility in an apartment. I decided to make St. Louis-style ribs based on this recipe from Delish, but I thought it would be fun and tasty to try playing with two different sauces in the final grilling phase. I served everything with a simple side of peppers and onions that I cooked in the oven in the drippings from the ribs’ initial round of cooking.

I love ribs, but they can be tricky to pair given that the sweetness in the sauces can often be a tough hurdle for a lot of wines. Zin tends to be a good bet thanks to its fruity character, as well as the fact that many have a little residual sugar still left in.


In this case, I opted for Stubb's Hickory Bourbon BBQ Sauce and a Korean Gochujang sauce from One Culture Foods flavored with Chipotle, apple juice, and sesame oil.

We tried the Gochujang ribs first, and they were spicy, smoky, and all-around delightful. We both preferred the Primitivo with this sauce. The combo brought out the freshness in the wine and turned down the rasinated flavor notes. Greg also noted that the savory notes in the wine resonated well with umami notes in the sauce, particularly the nutty notes from the sesame.

In the case of the ribs with the BBQ sauce, it was a closer competition between the two wines, and Greg flipped back and forth initially. I ultimately preferred the Zin in this case, as its fruitiness came out to meet the sweetness in the sauce.

We ended up with two tasty combos. How could we not be happy with a big platter of saucy ribs and delicious wine?!


The rest of the Italian Food, Wine, and Travel Blogging group is also exploring facets of Primitivo. If you happen to see this post early enough, join our discussion on Twitter on Saturday November 7th at 8 a.m PT/ 11 a.m. ET by following #ItalianFWT.

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  1. Those ribs! And those wines!! This looks amazing all around, Nicole. Thanks for sharing. I will definitely have to do more digging about the grape. I guess I just scratched the surface and thought they were the same. Shame on me! ;)

    1. You're not wrong at all -- they are the same, but then, as with all things with wine, things just get more complicated the more you dig - ha! And thanks!

  2. Your posts are always so chock full of information. Love that you paired these wines with two different rib recipes.

  3. I didn't know Carole Meredith labels her Zin as Tribidrag! When living in Sacramento I visited the Sierra Foothill wineries quite a bit but never made it to her winery. Some great Zins up there! I haven't had many Mandurian Primitivos but Puglian in general have that fresher acidity as you note. Killer pairing Nicole!

    1. Thanks Lynn! Actually, Carole Meredith's winery is on Mount Veeder in Napa. They don't have a tasting room, but I went once. A friend contacted them in advance to arrange it and she spent a generous amount of time with us showing us around the property.

  4. A big platter of saucy ribs and delicious wine? You bet! Especially on vacay. Nice comparison of the two wines. Zin certainly does climb in alcohol level; Primitivo not so much.


Thanks so much for leaving your comments and questions. I always love to hear from you!