Zinfandel has become synonymous with ripe, fruity and often affordable California red. Whereas “Primitivo” on a bottle of wine suggests something of Italian origin. They must be completely different wines, right? Not so much.

“Zinfandel and Primitivo are two names for the same grape variety,” says geneticist Carole Meredith, who, as a professor and researcher at UC Davis was responsible for tracking the grape’s origin to Croatia, where it is known as “Crljenak.”

So it’s the same grape—should be simple enough. Except that, as usual, it’s not simple at all. The wine industry’s governing body, the TTB, does not allow wineries to use the names interchangeably. If a winery purchases a vine that is being sold as “Primitivo,” they must then label the wine made from those grapes “Primitivo.” Meredith points out that the vines in the US being sold as Primitivo were actually imported directly from Italy (she estimates sometime in the ‘80s) whereas vines called Zinfandel have been in California since the 1800's.

So there is something Italian about Primitivo and something distinctly Californian about Zinfandel, even if they share the same DNA. Of course, just to make things more complicated, the same may not be said of wines that actually come from Italy—the European Union does accept the two names as synonyms and the US, as Meredith  points out, "has a policy of accepting wine labels that are legal in that country of origin." 

For classic expressions of California Zinfandel, check out the wines of Turley and Ridge; for Primitivo, Napa producer Hendry makes a very nice wine (and has a good, brief history on the grape) as does Uvaggio.