Wines of Croatia, Part II: “Original Zin”

We read an article recently in a reputable publication that proclaimed Zinfandel as California’s “heritage grape,” and went on to describe this grape varietal as “a quintessentially American phenomenon.  It’s zesty, rugged and loud, challenging to rear, a lover of barbecue.”  This characterization of Zinfandel is not uncommon and we have even heard more casual wine consumers refer to Zinfandel as “American’s wine grape.”  As charming as this characterization is, it does not stand up to reality or, more importantly, science.

 

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Some people take their grapes really, really seriously!

The story of original sin involves a fruit and a man named Adam; in his case, the fruit was allegedly an apple.  In the case of “original Zin,” a man and a fruit are again involved, but in this case the man is named Miljenko and the fruit is a grape.  As Adam was fascinated by the apple, Miljenko Grgic (Americanized to Mike Grgich when he came to this country), had a deep fascination with grapes.

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Meeting the legend himself at Grgich Hills

In 1959 Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley and started working at Souverain Cellars & Vineyard where he encountered Zinfandel grapes on their property.  Studying the canes, leaves, clusters, berry color and size, and, eventually, the juice the grapes produced, Grgich was convinced that Zinfandel was anything but a “quintessentially American phenomenon.”  To his eye, Zinfandel and the indigenous Plavac Mali grape from his native Croatia were one and the same.  Zinfandel, therefore, originated from his native Croatia.  For many years, he steadfastly maintained this conviction and shared it with anyone who would listen.

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Okay they do look alike …

In 1990 Mike Grgich made his first return trip to Croatia since leaving the country thirty-six years before in 1954.  To him, the similarities between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were still apparent during this trip and he remained convinced they were the same grape varietal.  On his next trip, in 1993, Grgich stepped it up a notch and actually took Napa Valley Zinfandel clusters, leaves and canes with him to Croatia to do a literal physical side-by-side comparison.  His conclusion?  The same grape.

Almost 5 years went by before Grgich took a step that would settle the question once and for all as to the relationship between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel – a step that would prove Grgich both right and wrong.   This step involved connecting with Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor in the renowned Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis.  Her area of expertise was – and yes, this really is a thing – grape genetics.  As a grape geneticist, Dr. Meredith studied the genes of grapes to understand how those genes contribute to making the grapes and vines they way they are.  She had a particular interest in the history of wine and understanding where specific grape varietals came from, which made her a perfect investigative partner for Mike Grgich.

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Professor Meredith receiving the Order of Danica Hrvatska medal from the Croatian government

In 1998 Carole Meredith and Mike Grgich got together and he shared with her his opinion about Zinfandel and Plavac Mali.  This visit inspired Carole to go to Croatia herself that same year to see for herself if she could definitively solve the Zinfandel-Plavac Mali puzzle.  She took samples from over 150 Plavac Mali vines from vineyards in the most renowned growing areas of Croatia, including the Peljesac Peninsula (where Mike Grgich has a winery today called Grgic Vina) and the island of Hvar.  Upon returning to U.C. Davis with her samples, Dr. Meredith performed a series of genetic tests on them and reached a definitive conclusion:  Zinfandel and Plavac Mali were not the same grapeWhat she did discover through her tests, though, is that these two grapes are related.  As she put it, Plavac Mali is the “son” of Zinfandel; in other words, Zinfandel and another grape together produced Plavac Mali.  So after nearly 50 years of believing Zinfandel was his native Plavac Mali, Mike Grgich turned out to be wrong.  But something interesting would happen soon after that would make him right again, sort of anyway.

Never one to give up, Carole Meredith continued her work, having connected with two professors from the University of Zagreb who were looking for help in using DNA tools to understand better the indigenous Croatian grapes and how they would be impacted by modern development and globalization.  The three professors continued to search for the elusive connection to Zinfandel and, lo and behold, they found it!   Near the port town of Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, nine Crljenak Kastelanski vines were found that DNA testing determined to be a 100% genetic match to Zinfandel.  As it turns out, Zinfandel was not Plavac Mali but it was indigenous to Croatia.  Subsequent historical research has shown that Croatian Zinfandel (also known as Tribidrag) was planted as far back as the 15th century.  What the Italians call Primitivo is also Zinfandel, having originated from the Croatian Tribidrag and been imported to Italy some 200-300 years ago.

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Crljenak/Tribidrag grapes growing in Croatia

We were so intrigued by this story that we made a trip to Croatia in late 2016 and soaked up as much wine and vineyard knowledge as we could.  We trudged around the Peljesac Peninsula where Mike Grgich’s beloved Plavac Mali grows on steeps slopes just meters from the sea.  Over the course of 2 ½ weeks we tasted dozens of Croatian wines and fell in love with the character, depth, and complexity of their wines.  Our favorite?  Crljenak Kastelanski (or Zinfandel if that’s easier to pronounce).  We loved this wine so much that we are now importing a Crljenak Kastelanski produced by Vina Matela.   We recently tasted this wine with an 86-year old winemaker partner and he proclaimed: “This is one of the best wines I’ve ever had.”  We have to agree.

Wine consumers that are looking for “California Zin” should ignore the Vina Matela offering as it will not live up to expectations.  Frequently fans of California Zinfandel use terms such as “jammy” or “fruit bomb” to describe their favorite wine.  Matela’s Crljenak Kastelanski has nice fruit on the nose and the palate but is a much more complex, rich, and balanced wine.  Fruit aroma and flavor are matched with a strong earthiness driven by the unique conditions of the mountain soil in which the grapes are grown.

You can purchase Matela Crljenak Kastelanski at www.topochines.com.  Click on “Countries” and then “Croatia” to find this wine along with our complete range of white and red Croatian wines for sale.  Readers of this blog can enter “Friends15” at checkout for a 15% discount.  For those interested in a broader exploration of the Croatian red wines, we also offer two different Plavac Mali wines, one from winemaker Tomic and the other from Edivo.  We will provide a deeper review of each of these wines in Croatian Wines, Part III.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 11, 2018

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