Grape Family Feud: Zin, Primitivo & Plavac Mali

“You ARE the father!”

Researching Zinfandel’s lineage is like watching the Maury Povich show of wine. But we’re going to (more tastefully?) summarize what is a complex and ancient family of wine grapes here today, right now! We promise there won’t be any storming off the stage, sobbing, or fistfights.

Zinfandel has long been considered “California’s grape,” but it took vine geneticists a long time to discover its exact parentage. You can DNA test wine, but it’s much more difficult than on Maury. It involves tireless travel, collecting vine samples, testing, re-testing and fingerprinting. There’s gonna be some crazy words thrown at you right about now, so get ready!

Lets start with Zinfandel and Primitivo: These two twinsies have long been thought of as the same grape but from different places. Zin, of course, is our fruit-forward, peppery friend from California. Primitivo is grown in Southern Italy, and bears striking resemblance to Zinfandel both in taste and vine behavior. Zin and Primitivo are both clones of a Croatian grape called Crljenak Kaštelanski, which is also known as Tribidrag. (Wha!?) Zinfandel and Primitvo are SO much easier to remember.

Now, a grape clone isn’t quite as alarming as it sounds; cloning can occur naturally due to growing conditions, or a grower can graft cuttings of a particular vine onto another vine. Over time they can develop their own distinguishing characteristics, which Zin and Primitivo have.

What about little Plavac Mali, who you’ve probably never heard of? Is he a long-lost sibling? Yeah, he pretty much is! It was thought for some time that Plavac could be the parent of Zinfandel. It turns out that he is a cross between Tribidrag and Dobričić, the latter being (yet another) ancient grape grown on the Croatian coast. Now we’re gettin’ all Maury Povich! They’re kind of all each other’s dad AND sibling. Yikes. Who knew grapes were so incestuous? Chances are you’ll adore Plavac Mali (which is actually the most widely planted grape on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast) for its rugged yet accessible spice, bright red fruit and floral highlights.

To summarize: Tribidrag produced the two clones Zinfandel and Primitivo. Tribidrag and Dobričić crossed to produce Plavac Mali.

Tribidrag, you ARE the father. Essentially.

Who would’ve thought this whole wacky gene pool started in Croatia? Exploring wines from Eastern Europe is like a history lesson. The grape names might be hard to pronounce, but tracing the familial lines of how these grapes are related is quite a trip. Did reading this make you want to open a bottle of wine and watch a Maury rerun? We won’t judge.

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