Early on in their annual update of grape acreage in California, the federal and state agricultural officials who track this sort of thing include a long list of synonyms for the names of grape varieties. Mataro, for example, also can be called mourvedre, sangiovese can go by brunello, valdepenas can be substituted for tempranillo, and so on.
Nowhere on the list, however, is mention made of zinfandel and primitivo, even though genetic analysis over the past decade has shown that California's zinfandel, Italy's primitivo and Croatia's crljenak kastelanski are grape varieties that share the same DNA profile. Officials of the European Union recognize zinfandel and primitivo as synonyms, but federal and state authorities in the United States don't.
Vintners in the U.S. aren't making a big issue of this, though zinfandel specialists here have expressed some unhappiness about Italian primitivo producers using on their labels "zinfandel," which they justifiably feel is more closely identified with California than any other wine region.
At the same time, several California vintners don't hesitate to market wines labeled as "primitivo." Many of them also market wines labeled as "zinfandel." They don't deny the science that says the varieties are genetically alike, but in vineyard and cellar they often see enough differences in the grapes and the wines they yield to convince them that some clonal variables have developed over the centuries that the varieties have been cultivated.
They, and researchers at UC Davis and elsewhere, note that the backside of the leaves of primitivo have a kind of "felty, dense hair," while the leaves of zinfandel have a more "cobwebby consistency," as Nancy Sweet and Dr. James Wolpert, both of UC Davis, put it in a paper six years ago.
Farmers, winemakers and scientists also have said that primitivo's clusters tend to be looser, that its grapes generally are smaller, and that primitivo often ripens earlier than zinfandel.
As Sweet and Wolpert note in their paper, the name "primitivo" is from the Latin "primus," for first. That wasn't, presumably, a statement about quality, but about primitivo's being early to ripen and harvest.
Do zinfandel and primitivo produce different styles of wine? By my experience, I'd say so, though I also suspect I might well be fooled in a blind tasting involving examples of both.
Nevertheless, when I've known the varietal I'm tasting, I've found primitivos generally to be lighter, leaner, brighter, fresher and usually more gentle than zinfandel; by and large, zinfandel's black-pepper spice hasn't been as pronounced in primitivo. Nevertheless, such factors as the ripeness of the grapes and the application of oak can narrow the differences in the two varietals.
At Cooper Vineyards in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, winemaker Mike Roser makes and bottles both zinfandel and primitivo. When he is asked of the aesthetic differences between the two varietals, he unequivocally says, "Nine out of 10 taste significantly different.
"Zinfandel tends to get more jammy and pruney than primitivo. With primitivo, even at 15 percent alcohol you don't get the kind of jamminess and late-harvest ripeness you get with zinfandel."
His latest take on the varietal is the Cooper Vineyards 2010 Amador County Estate Primitivo. It's an exceptionally profound interpretation of primitivo, retaining the grape's bright berry freshness and lean construction while also layering it with unanticipated complexity and several more dashes of pepper than typically is found in the varietal. It's high in alcohol, all right 15 percent but it doesn't taste hot or at all ragged. It's a polished primitivo, generous with fruit and punctuated with alluring spice.
The grapes, recalled Roser, came in with high sugar, prompting him to ferment the juice with two strains of yeast, one designed to digest that much sugar "I didn't want the wine sweet" the other to enhance the wine's mouthfeel. The wine does taste a bit sweet, but it doesn't at all approach late-harvest classification, as some zinfandels unintentionally do.
Roser and the Cooper family are enthusiastic about primitivo's prospects.
Ironically, the estate primitivo comes from a stand of zinfandel that family patriarch Dick Cooper grafted over about six years ago. What's more, demand for Cooper primitivo is rising so dramatically that the family is to plant another section where an walnut orchard once stood.
Furthermore, Roser in May will release a reserve primitivo to be called "Tesoro," Italian for "treasure." For the record, California had 48,354 acres of zinfandel as of 2011, the latest year for which grape acreage was tallied. That's up from 43,229 acres 10 years ago.
Primitivo, meanwhile, has grown from just 102 acres a decade ago to 254 acres in 2011.
While zinfandel remains dominant on California's wine landscape, the Cooper shows that primitivo also deserves a place at the table.
Cooper Vineyards 2010 Amador County Estate Primitivo
By the numbers: 15 percent alcohol, 454 cases, $27
Context: Mike Roser likes the primitivo with spicy Mexican fajitas, Italian pastas with a red sauce, and lamb.
Availability: In the Sacramento area, the primitivo is at the Rush River Drive, El Dorado Hills and Folsom branches of Raley's/Bel Air and most Nugget Markets.
More information: The tasting room at Cooper Vineyards, 21365 Shenandoah School Road, Plymouth, is open 11 a.m.- 4:45 p.m. Thursday through Monday. The winery also has a website, www.cooperwines.com.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at email@example.com.