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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Neil Beckett

They may be genetically identical, but for all practical purposes Primitivo and Zinfandel are not the same grape variety. Such was the clear conclusion reached by two Californian specialists - Mark Shannon of A Mano, now producing award-winning Primitivo in Puglia, and Pete Seghesio of Seghesio Family Vineyards, responsible for some of California's most highly-rated Zinfandels. The pair were speaking at a seminar and tasting in London on 2 April organised by UK distributor Liberty Wines, and their conclusions, shared by high-profile Italian consultant Riccardo Cotarella, add fuel to the debate over the labelling of the two varieties. Shannon accepted that Primitivo and Zinfandel are genetically identical, as shown by American plant geneticist Carole Meredith. But are they the same?' he asked. No, they are not the same,' he answered, any more than genetic twins are identical if one grows up in Belgravia and one grows up in California. If you plant Nebbiolo in California, you don't get Barolo, which has its own Italian flavour profile, its own Italian expression.' Noting that Primitivo means first grape' (and that one of its Puglian synonyms, Primaticcio, means first to wake up'), Shannon said that Primitivo would always ripen earlier than Zinfandel when planted in the same place. If you planted Zinfandel in Puglia, I bet anybody here a fancy lunch that it would ripen three weeks later,' he insisted. Seghesio supported Shannon's stance, saying that the two varieties are not identical, they're not even close'. He has eight hectares of Primitivo - acquired through UC Davis and certified by the Foundation Plant Material Service - which consistently ripens ten days earlier than Zinfandel in neighbouring parcels (planted with three different clones). Among other dramatic differences' highlighted by Seghesio was the fact that Primitivo does not raisin as rapidly as Zinfandel, and that it ripens more steadily, without grapes ranging from ros to raisin on the same bunch. The looser bunches also mean that Primitivo is less prone to botrytis. Seghesio described Primitivo as having better natural acidity and a blacker fruit character than Zinfandel. Instead of adding Alicante, Carignan and Petite Sirah as blending components in some of his Zinfandels, he will therefore be switching to Primitivo (2-4%) and Petite Sirah (5-6%), having expanded his Primitivo plantings. He applauded Shannon's decision to take the high road' by not marketing his Primitivo as Zinfandel, as some UK supermarkets now do. Shannon responded that: If you have to be a tag-on marketeer, it's an admission of defeat.'