Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Zinfandel makes a comeback in its native land

Zinfandel is often considered California's native grape because we were the first to make fine wine out of it. The grape is actually from Croatia, but it was almost extinct there when its DNA identity was confirmed in 2001.

Here's how close it got: In 4 years of searching, two professors from University of Zagreb found only 25 vines of Crljenak Kastelanski (CK), the vine that is genetically identical to Zin.

In the last 5 years, thanks to Zin's fame in California, Croatians are replanting it. I had a chance to taste some wines from these new plantings Tuesday at Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford.

There's good and bad news about this comeback. Because the few scraggly old CK vines left in Croatia were infected with viruses, the replanting -- now over 185,000 vines -- is being done with Primitivo from Italy.

Primitivo is also genetically identical to Zinfandel. CK somehow made it to New England in the 1830s as an ornamental grape and came out to California with the Gold Rush. People quickly loved it for its fruitiness and large crops. It's now believed that Italians who went back home from California took Zin with them, calling it Primitivo. Zin and Primitivo were both thriving in new lands in the late 1800s while CK was dying off in its homeland because of, ironically, new fungal diseases from America.

Geneticist Ivan Pejic says that the use of Primitivo, instead of cloned CK, is not a problem. But minute variations make a huge difference in grapevines; think of the interest vintners have in which clone of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir they're cultivating.

The good news is that UC Davis is currently propagating some of the original 25 CK vines virus-free, and they should be available for re-importation into Croatia within three years.

"We waited hundreds of years to find it," Pejic says. "We can wait another five."

In the meantime, the main difference in flavor between Croatian CK and Napa Valley Zinfandel is more a product of climate than clones. Croatia gets much more rain than most of California, is more humid during the summer, and doesn't have cool evening temperatures. Imagine a wetter Paso Robles -- where the Zin does reasonably well -- and you've got an idea.

We only tasted four Croatian CKs; there just aren't that many bottles in existence. One of them, from Zlatan Plenkovic winery on the Island of Hvar, was exciting because it was the first wine actually labeled Crljenak Kastelanski in the modern history of the world. Sadly, it had so much brett that it smelled like rubber tires. The winery did a much better job with a 2007 dessert wine made from CK, which had dark cherry and kirsch liquor notes without the excessive sweetness that plagues most California Zinfandel Ports (most of which are made because the grapes got too ripe).

The other two non-dessert CKs were more representative of the grape's potential. A 2007 from brand-new Marinovic & Djuric winery in Dubrovnik was an appealing fruit bowl, with notes of raspberry and blackberry pie filling. It was quite tannic and the new oak made its presence known with vanilla notes, but the vivacious fruit was positively Californian.

The University of Zagreb's Faculty of Agriculture made an experimental bottling of 2007 CK without the oak influence that was pretty on the nose and more restrained on the palate, with more red cherry fruit and a Pinot-like delicacy.

None of the three wines had the black pepper notes that Zinfandel develops in cooler climates like Dry Creek Valley, but whether that's a function of the clone or the climate is hard to say.

Mike Grgich, who hosted the event, also has a winery in Croatia. I finally got to taste one of his Croatian wines, a 2006 Plavac Mali. These are not exported because they sell out in Croatia. The wine was complex and interesting, with cherry and raspberry fruit, savory notes of tomato juice and sweet ham, and some spearmint in the aroma. However, it was fairly astringent. "We buy grapes and a lot of people aren't giving you what you pay for," said Grgich's nephew Ivo Jeramaz, his VP of Vineyards & Production. "That's why we like to be estate."

Plavac Mali is the lovechild of CK and a grape called Dobricic. A 2006 Bura Plavac Mali from Dingac showed its great potential: it had bright cherry fruit, but also a savory roasted red pepper character, with some clove notes in the aroma. Big-bodied but balanced, this wine stayed bright and complex through a long finish.

For comparison purposes, we tasted Grgich Hills' 2006 Napa Valley Zinfandel, which I didn't care for, and the 2005 Grgich Hills Miljenko's Old Vines Napa Valley Zinfandel ($85). The price is crazy, especially these days, even given that the biodynamically dry-farmed vines are 115 years old and less than 300 cases are made.

But I love this wine. I have loved past vintages, and I loved the '05. It's a wine that keeps giving you more nuances the longer you spend with it, and its balance shows Grgich's European sensibility. It opens with pretty raspberry notes along with a darker cherry, then a rush of pomegranate ushers in savory notes of smoked ham and sea salt. On one sip I noticed red apple skin; another time I thought I smelled roasted yams. This is the kind of wine that will keep you interested throughout the bottle. It tends not to get super-high ratings from a certain lover of ripe fruit bombs because it's not. But I think this wine has star power; it compels you to keep paying attention to it.

Mike Grgich is 86 now but still hale. He greeted everyone beforehand and took time to stand and chat with everyone afterward. He says his winery in Peljesac is like a paradise, on the coast with beautiful views and great weather, but he can only visit once or twice per year now because at his age travel isn't easy anymore. I asked if he considered moving back there, trying to hide the morbidity of the question. Mike was all smiles; even at 86 he's loving life.

"All my friends are here," Grgich said. "I've been here 50 years. Everyone I knew in Croatia is dead or moved. This is my home now. There it is paradise, but here is also paradise, and it is where I want to be."

You and Zinfandel both, Miljenko, you and Zinfandel both.


Frank Dietrich said...

very interesting report, Blake.
The CK made by Zlatan Plenkovic is certainly a historic first in modern Croatian viticulture. Hardly a wonder that it's not yet the vintage to collect and rave about. Zlatan's Plavac wines show that he is a very capable wine maker.


Wiens Family Cellars said...

Primitivo has been a very popular varietal for our winery. I think customers appreciate that it's a bit unique. We just finished up bottling our 2007 Reserve Primitivo yesterday (about 420 cases total).