by Fred McMillin
for May 31, 1999


The Riddle of the Primitivo


In 1994, U.C.-Davis' Professor Carole Meredith proved, by DNA fingerprinting, that the Primitivo and the Zinfandel were identical.

In 1999, vintner Lee Sobon says: "The appearance of the Primitivo vines and grapes are different from those of the Zinfandel. The two can be easily distinguished in the vineyard. The resulting wine from the Primitivo grape shows many similarities to Zinfandel, but also many differences."

The Answer

Sobon Estate  
Lee gives us the answer. A variety of grape, such as Zinfandel, can have a number of sub-types. A clone is a sub-type. All vines of a particular clone have the identical genetic makeup.

Lee tells us the Primitivo has been found to be a specific clone of the Zinfandel. It is distinctive enough from the typical Zinfandel clonal mix that the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have classified it as a separate variety.

Now to the good news. You can taste Primitivo yourself, and find out if your palate can detect any differences. Here it is.

Wine of the Day

Primitivo, Shenandoah Valley of California
Winery—Sobon Estate
Composition—100% Primitivo
Aging—14 months in older French oak
Alcohol—A Zinfandel-like, robust 14.1%
Production—Only 509 cases...hurry!
Contact—Shirley Sobon, (209) 245-4455, FAX (209) 245-5156
Price—$18 range


Historian Charles Sullivan writes that in 1967 Dr. Austin Goheen was visiting in the heel of southern Italy. He saw a vine common in the area that was called Primitivo. Its appearance and its wine resembled that of Zinfandel, so he had cuttings sent to U.C.-Davis. The grapes for today's wine were harvested exactly 30 years later (1997) from descendants of Dr. Goheen's imports.

Credits: Charles Sullivan's new Companion to California Wine

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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