By Dan Berger

For well over 100 years, the origins of the grape we call Zinfandel was unknown. 

Books were written about the mysterious background of the grape, and although it made a stellar red wine, and was the soul of White Zinfandel and Zinfandel Rosé, no one really knew where it came from.

And then a dedicated and persistent wine researcher identified what some wine lovers have wanted to know for a long time.

Zinfandel and Crljenak KasteljanskiTwenty years ago, the question was all the rage: where did Zinfandel come from? We knew it made great red, white, pink and late-harvest wines in California. But did it make wine nowhere else? Wasn’t there a European ancestor? Had the grape’s parents died out? Were there no ancestors?

Back then, there was so much mystique about Zin that a wonderful investigation of it was written. San Francisco writer David Darlington’s book, “Angel’s Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel,” still reads well, even though science has finally solved the mystery.

The good news is that a link has been found. The bad news is that it’s hard to pronounce. California producers of Zinfandel now have mixed emotions when they have to say that Zinfandel is really Crljenak Kasteljanski. (Try zurl-yen-ak for short.)

What a mouthful.

A now-retired UC Davis geneticist, Dr. Carole Meredith, definitively identified Crljenak as Zinfandel’s true ancestor, using DNA fingerprinting to prove her case. And it wasn’t the first time a grape native to southern Europe had been identified as the true parent of Zinfandel.

A grape called Primitivo was widely thought to be identical to Zinfandel. It was anecdotally linked to Zinfandel decades ago, so much so that a U.S. government agency (then called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a division of the Treasury Dept.), approved at least one wine from Apulia, in the heel of the Italian boot, as “Imported Zinfandel.”

Primitivo is widely planted in Apulia, where it makes a fairly hefty wine with alcohol levels typically above 14%. In that regard it is quite a bit like California Zinfandel.

Dr. Meredith, then a professor of plant science at UC Davis, wasn’t totally convinced. DNA fingerprinting of the two grapes proved they might be related, and at one point, she was pretty much convinced of it.

But not entirely. In 1998, she was led to believe that the Croatian grape Plavac Mali was really the parent of Zinfandel, and darned if that grape also didn’t look pretty much like Zinfandel, genetically.

And to top it off, Mike Grgich, owner of Napa Valley’s Grgich Hills Cellars, went back to his Croatian homeland and made a red wine from Plavac Mali (plah-vatz mah-lee). It tasted awfully much like Zin.

However, Meredith’s research showed that Zin and Plavac Mali shared only half of each other’s DNA: they were not DNA identical. It as estimated to be about a 97% match. That’s very close, but for a researcher it was not an identical match.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2001 that Meredith finally had another lead: Crljenak. After DNA testing, Meredith could finally say conclusively about a year later that the parent of Zin had been found.

Though the match has been made, don’t expect to see a Croatian “Imported Zinfandel” any time soon. The vineyard where the grape was discovered had only eight Crljenak vines.

The mystery may be over, but the lore remains. Today, literally dozens of California wineries make a Zinfandel, a red wine that works perfectly nicely with roasted meat dishes, and is in some circles called “pizza wine.” And many more are making a Zinfandel-like red wine from Primitivo and a few even allege that the grape is Zinfandel or a close relative of it.

To date, no Californian has decided to call the wine Crljenak. And you can’t blame them. The tongue-twister nature of the words makes it so hard to pronounce, and the letters CK don’t work either.

And what’s wrong with just buying Zinfandel to go with your pizza? It can be a pretty nice wine. 

As for Crljenak Kasteljanski, it’s but a historical and vinological footnote that is best used for answering final Jeopardy questions or winning bar bets.

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