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Zinfandel's Ancestor Found
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed January 24, 2002. For more information go to

Zinfandel - often billed as the quintessential American wine grape - has been traced to its apparent origin, a wild vine that grows on the Adriatic coast in Croatia in the former Yugoslavia.

DNA testing last month revealed that Zin is identical with a native Croatian grape called Crljenik Kasteljanski (pronounced "kurlyenik kastelyansky"), said Dr. Carole Meredith of the University of California at Davis.

Meredith, a professor of enology and viticulture whose name will be familiar from her previous discoveries tracing the heritage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other grapes using DNA technology, worked with Croatian scientists Edi Maletic and Ivan Pejic on the Zinfandel quest. She credits her Croatian fellows with the discovery, saying it took five years to track down the elusive parent grape even after the research trail led them to Croatia.

"We're not likely to be flooded with Croatian Zin for a while at least," Meredith wrote in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group today. "There doesn't seem to be much of it there."

The literal translation of the name is "Red from Kastela," Meredith said, adding, "That name might not stick. There are lots and lots of Crljenaks listed in the authoritative Croatian ampelography written by Bulic in the 1940's. Maletic ... is of the opinion that the description of Crljenak kasteljanski most closely matches the vine he and Ivan Pejic found."

Zin's history has long been clouded in legend, as discussed in The 30 Second Wine Advisor article "Zinfandel, more of a mystery than ever," on July 5, 1999.

The conventional wisdom for many years was that Count Agoston Haraszthy - a colorful California figure during Gold Rush days - brought this then-rare grape to the U.S. from his native Hungary some time after 1849. But it's clear that Haraszthy, a notorious self-promoter, exaggerated his role in the Zin story. In fact, Zinfandel (sometimes rendered "Zinfindal," "Zierfandler" or "Zeinfindall") was well-known in the Eastern U.S. long before Haraszthy set foot in Napa. It turned up in a horticultural fair in Massachusetts as early as 1834.

Zin has also been linked with the Southern Italian Primitivo of Apulia (once considered a sibling but now shown by DNA to be identical with Zin), and apparently was exported to Italy from the States in the late 1800s. The grape sleuths then moved on to Croatia, where they looked closely at the similar Plavac Mali grape - which DNA tests showed to be more like a cousin than a parent - before determining that the DNA signature of Crljenik Kasteljanski appears identical to Zin.

"We haven't had time to write anything up yet," Meredith told our online group. "We only got the DNA results in mid-December. Edi and Ivan in Zagreb will write something in the near future."

Meanwhile, Meredith jokingly said she is a bit wary of showing up at the huge Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) program and tasting going on in San Francisco this weekend. "The egging hasn't started yet," she said with a virtual chuckle, but, "Not everyone is pleased that Zinfandel has been found in Croatia. Maybe I'll go in disguise ... "

Speaking of that ZAP tasting, the big four-day event is now under way in the Bay Area, culminating with Saturday's 11th annual tasting in the Herbst and Festival Pavilions of San Francisco's Fort Mason Center. For information about the event click here.

For general information about ZAP, a non-profit membership organization with about 5,500 members including more than 250 producers of Zinfandel, see their site.


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