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Primitivo vs Zinfandel

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Similarities of Primitivo & Zinfandel

Primitivo and Zinfandel are two names for the same grape, grown in Italy and the USA respectively. These two wines’ characteristics vary according to climate and producer, but for the most part, they are very similar.  The original Zinfandel/Primitivo grape supposedly came from Croatia, where it is known as “Kaštela Red”. From Croatia, it spread to Puglia in the south of Italy and became known as Primitivo.

In the 19th century, it made its way to America and became known as Zinfandel (a name that was likely derived from a completely different German grape, called Zierfandler).  Due to this common ancestry, Zinfandel and Primitivo have a lot in common. Both varieties are known for producing dry, full-bodied, high-alcohol wines with bold flavors and a strong presence of black fruit, such as blackberry and black cherry.

While they are both robust red wines, Primitivo and Zinfandel are not really comparable to wines such as Barolo, for example, that you would find in the north of Italy. They feature medium, balanced levels of acidity and tannin, which allows the ripe fruit flavors to shine through. 

Differences of Primitivo Versus Zinfandel

The differences between Primitivo and Zinfandel are largely due to differences in wine-making styles and terroir between the south of Italy and the USA. The climate and soil conditions are different, which can affect the taste of the wine. Primitivo is best described as a “rustic” wine that matures under the scorching Italian sun. It tends to be on the leaner side, and can often exhibit less sugar, dark, ripe fruits such as blackberry and blueberry, as well as floral notes, black liquorice and black pepper. In short, a classic Primitivo is high in alcohol, boisterous, and packed with intense dark fruit flavors.

Zinfandel tends to be produced with slightly higher sugar levels – but that can vary depending on the producer. The areas where Zinfandel is grown in the USA also tend to be slightly cooler than Italy’s deep south (if you can picture Italy as a boot, Puglia is the heel), so you will find some more hints of raspberry and red fruits. Due to growing in cooler climates, Zinfandel has the potential to be more elegant than Primitivo, but it’s safe to say that most wine-makers embrace the grape’s rustic side. Sometimes it can be very difficult to tell the difference between the two –  in a blind test, you will really have to know your Old World from New World wines. 

How To Distinguish Between Primitivo & Zinfandel

Primitivo and Zinfandel are both dark red wines, but with Primitivo, you may notice a slightly more inky, purplish hue. On the nose, you can also look for hints of florality in Primitivo, and more prominent raspberry notes in Zinfandel, though this can vary between bottles.  Once you take a blind sip of one of these wines, it can be quite difficult to distinguish between the two. The key will be to look for the distinctly spicy edge that many Zinfandel wines exhibit, and the decidedly rough and rustic personality of Primitivo. 

Primitivo vs Zinfandel Comparison Chart

Characteristic Primitivo Zinfandel
Sweetness Dry Dry
Acidity Medium Medium
Tannins Medium Medium
Body Full Full
Tasting Notes Ripe jammy dark fruits – blackberry, blueberry, plum, black pepper, liquorice, spice and herbs.  Jammy red and black fruits – plum, blackberry, blackcurrant, raspberry, cranberry, black pepper, liquorice, tobacco and spice
Popularity 4,400 Monthly Searches 33,100 Monthly Searches
Calories Per Glass 120 calories 120 calories
ABV % 13 – 17% 13 – 17%

Pairing Food With Primitivo & Zinfandel

Primitivo and Zinfandel are also pretty similar in terms of their pairing – but they both open up doors for different regional pairings. Primitivo is a brilliant partner for tomato-rich pasta dishes or classic Italian dishes like spaghetti with meatballs or eggplant parmesan. Zinfandel, on the other hand, may suit an American-style backyard barbecue, with grilled burgers, peppers and pork ribs.