Primitivo vs Zinfandel – What’s the Difference?

Harry Lambourne
10th October 2023

You might be a lover of the rich Primitivo of Puglia. Maybe, you’re mad for the off-dry and powerful Zinfandel of California. However, you might be surprised to know that they are in fact produced from the same grape variety.

Much like Pinot Gris, (or Pinot Grigio), the same grape variety has found different names across the globe. After all, one person’s Grenache is another person’s Garnacha.

Yet, what does this mean? Should you stay clear of one if you like the other? Or, do they share similar characteristics? We’ll take a deeper look into this grape variety as well as the wine regions which it calls home.

By the end, you’ll be keen to pick up a bottle of something delicious that carries one of these two names. For the sake of ease, we’ll refer to the grape variety of Primitivo, (unless we’re specifically talking about California). However, we know that they’re one and the same.

The Primitivo Grape Variety

Primitivo Grape Variety
Primitivo Grapes at Harvest

While we will refer to the grape as Primitivo, in fact the original name of the grape is ‘Tribidrag‘, as the grape originated in Croatia. Generally, whatever name you stick on it, these grapes will produce big and booming red wines.

They’ll often also have a high alcohol content, although the actual extent of this will be managed closely by the winemaker, both through the terroir of their home environment and the techniques employed in the winery.

Tannins and body also tend to be very full, while acidity remains relatively low. Beyond these structural components and the boozy character, an adjective which you’ll often see ascribed to these wines is jammy. They’re rich and decadent creations that are guaranteed to warm the cockles on a cold evening.

Where there is jam, there is fruit. These wines certainly deliver on enticing fruit flavours. Common tasting notes include blackberry, strawberry, blackcurrant, raspberry, cherry and plum.

Primitivo is also a grape variety that can stand up to oak ageing. This can instil some great tasting notes, but also accentuate the natural spicy character of the grapes. You can expect to experience notes of bramble, baking spice, cinnamon, coffee, dark chocolate, tobacco, cedar, vanilla and almost always pepper, (both black and white).

If you like this style of wine, then it is also worth checking out some other famous Italian grape varieties. This includes Dolcetto from Piedmont and Nero d’Avola from Sicily.

Now, it’s time to look at the two major production centres of this wonderful grape variety.

Puglia And Primitivo

Puglia Wine Region
Puglia, Italy

You’ll also see Puglia, which sits to the back of the heel of Italy’s boot outline, referred to as Apulia. It may be more closely associated with quantity than quality, as is the case with Veneto. Yet, like Veneto some truly outstanding wines can be found across Puglia.

It is only in recent years where people have come to really appreciate the wines of Puglia. Indeed, it was due to the success of new world regions like California that gave Puglia greater impetus to push their wines to a wider audience.

This is because wines produced in these hotter climates, accentuated and leant into their jammy nature. This showed that people would have a taste for the wines produced from that Primitivo grape variety. Jancis Robinson has even described it as ‘Italy’s New World Wine Region’.

Primitivo is not the only grape of note in this wine region. In Puglia, you’ll find Negroamaro, Nero di Troia and Montepulciano, (the star of Abruzzo), but Primitivo is the main event. We’ve touched upon the common characteristics of the Primitivo grape variety. However, where the Italian style differentiates itself from the Californian style is that it tends to be lower in alcohol and slightly fresher in style, with more defined peppery qualities. The freshness and lower alcohol can be attributed to the cooler climate. Puglia is certainly hot. Yet, it sits right on the coast so it benefits from cooling ocean breezes which float through the vineyards.

California And Zinfandel

Now, we move across the Atlantic to the huge Californian wine region. Here, winemakers are perhaps most well known for the Bordeaux-style blends which expertly combine the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grape varieties. However, Zinfandel has also established itself as a key grape variety in this region and that’s not just due to the often unexciting light style of rosé wine known as ‘White Zinfandel‘.

Napa Valley Wine Region | Californian Wine Region
Napa Valley, California

While Napa Valley is an obvious place to start, (and there is great Zinfandel which has Napa Valley on the label), there are other smaller pockets of the Californian wine region which deserve attention. These include the Alexander Valley in Sonoma, Paso Robles and Lodi. The latter two sit by the San Francisco Bay. The latter is responsible for 40% of Californian’s premium Zinfandel!

Now, what does Californian Zinfandel taste like? Again, it has this jammy and fruit-forward nature but it is also noticeably more alcoholic than the Italian versions. You will also find concentrated sugars which provide the wine with an off-dry character. This is due to two key factors. The first is a Californian characteristic known as ‘hang-time’. The second is that the Zinfandel grapes are prone to ripening unevenly.

Unripened grapes will impact the quality of the wine. So, the Zinfandel grapes are left on the vine for a greater amount of time to ensure all ripen fully. This increased ‘hang-time’ will also mean that some Zinfandel grapes will began to raisin. The sugars concentrate, as the water dissipates. This leads to that off-dry character, as well as flavours of raisins and dried figs.

That’s our look into all things Primitivo, (and Zinfandel of course). We hope we’ve inspired you to get out and try some of Puglia and California’s finest. Not only that, but now you’ll be well equipped to know what to expect from each style of wine.

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