How an ancient grape linked American and Croatian wine

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How an ancient grape linked American and Croatian wine

History + Culture

How an ancient grape linked American and Croatian wine

If you’ve heard of just one kind of zinfandel, it’s probably the white one. White zinfandel was the most popular wine in America for about 25 years, and still accounts for 6% of all grocery store volume (on par with pinot noir) in the U.S., as of 2016.

But that sweet, fruity pink drink that ruled the 80s isn’t quite what it seems. For starters, white zinfandel is actually made from red zinfandel grapes; the colorless grape juice soaks in red skins to achieve the desired pink color. And red zinfandel? Until recently, no one really knew where the spicy red wine came from, so winemakers embraced zinfandel as America’s “heritage” grape.

Zinfandel was one of the earliest wines to be produced in California, having migrated from the East Coast to the West during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. For most of the 19th and 20th century, “Old Vine” zinfandel was the most widely planted red grape in California (it’s still the third most popular today), until cabernet sauvignon eventually surpassed it in the 90s.

But the long-held belief that zin was as American as Thanksgiving was turned upside down in 2001, when Dr. Carole Meredith, then a viticulture and enology professor at University of California at Davis, along with two Croatian professors, traced its ancestry across the Atlantic to an ancient vine in Croatia.

Not only did it flip California zin on its head, it also changed the trajectory of Croatia’s wine industry.

The origin story

Photo via Alan Mandic/Culinary Croatia.

While winemakers adopted zinfandel as California’s quintessential wine, scientists weren’t buying. They suspected the grape’s immigrant origins – tipped off by its European-looking leaves – and floated several theories during the mid-to-late 1900s.

Zin’s backstory remained elusive until 2001, when Edi Maletić and Ivan Pejić discovered an old vine called crljenak kastelanski in a tiny coastal village, near Split. With Meredith’s DNA testing, they confirmed that the ancient vine was genetically identical – meaning zinfandel originated in Croatia.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: GAME OF THRONES SPOILER ALERT]

“Now there is history and this remarkable tale of discovery of its origins in Croatia. It’s like the character of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones,” says Cliff Rames, a sommelier, wine educator, and the founder of Wines of Croatia website.

“We were led to believe he was the son of Ned Stark, and that guided a straight and somewhat predictable storyline. But now that it has been revealed he may be the son of a Targaryen, a whole new realm of intrigue and possibility has opened that alters the old narrative in fascinating ways.”

A new world order

Drawing from the new resource in Croatia, scientists and winemakers jumped at the opportunity to better understand zinfandel’s idiosyncrasies and ancestry, its migration, distribution and genetic relatives.

When further examining crljenak kastelanski, scientists found another DNA twin, this time with a Croatian grape that goes by the name of tribidrag. Genetically identical, the vine is thought to date back to 1500.

The news did wonders for Croatia and its winemakers. After 250 years of Americans touting zinfandel as their own, Croatia could now lay claim to one of the world’s most famous grapes.

At the time of the discovery, many central European countries – such as Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary – were just starting to return to ancient wine-making culture, which had stalled during the political upheaval in the 20th century.

“You can imagine 15 years ago, people had no idea about Croatia as a wine-producing country,” says Frank Dietrich, co-founder of Blue Danube Wine Company, and a Central European wine specialist. “The fact that this flagship American grape came from Croatia, this really helped to propel a story and get people interested. It gave us the big picture, and the ability to talk about Croatia winemaking in a meaningful way and it led to the rediscovering of winemaking history across that region where there is a large arsenal of indigenous grape material.”

Next-gen California zin

Every time the story changes, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword for winemakers. On one hand, producers must revamp marketing approach; on the other hand, they can better understand the grapes’ idiosyncrasies and, arguably, produce better wines. 

Several California winemakers quickly moved to embrace the new origin story, including Meredith, who transitioned into a winemaker shortly after the announcement. The scientist runs Lagier Meredith vineyards with partner Steve Lagier in Napa Valley, where they produce a zinfandel called Tribidrag. Selling for $45 a bottle, the wine pays tribute to 14th-century zinfandels. It was the most popular wine at the time, said to be enjoyed by noblemen, poets and playwrights across Croatia, Austria and Italy.  

Ridge Vineyards even funded part of Maletić and Pejić’s earlier search for ancient vines. Their most notable zinfandel project has been the decision to import clones of crljenak kastelanski and pribidrag (another name for zin, from Omiš, south of Split) and cultivate them on American soil.

So far, Ridge has planted approximately 1,500 vines of these clones – the first commercial planting of Croatian vines in California. The goal? To grow Californian, Italian and Croatian vines side-by-side and see how they differ when produced in the same terroir.

“The differences that I am hoping to find between the Croatian zins and what we have in California are mostly genetic, and maybe they will be significant enough to add diversity, dimension, and complexity to wines made from each individually,” adds Gates. “Our greater goal would be to then use any differences to make better wines by blending them together.”

The vines were finally planted in 2015 and the first harvest was this year, which means the wines will be bottled and ready to drink in 2019.

Where to try zin in Croatia

Photo via Alan Mandic/Culinary Croatia.

Across the Atlantic, winemakers along the Dalmatian Coast are also enjoying a burst of momentum. For Croatia, it’s a second coming; the country has been producing wine for more than two millennia, but fell off the winemaking map in the 20th century due to political conflicts.

“In the Dalmatia region, for example, there were landmines in some vineyards leftover from the Croatian War of Independence during the breakup of Yugoslavia [in the 1990s],” says Dietrich. “But with political changes in the 21st century, wine culture and quality winemaking came back in stride.”

As most wineries in Croatia are relatively young, family-run affairs, the wine tends to taste a little more rustic than what you’d find in California. But that’s not to say you can’t have a sophisticated, gourmet experience in Croatia. Dietrich recommends one vineyard in particular: Bibich, which Anthony Bourdain visited on his show No Reservations in 2012.

“The experience is two-fold: Alen Bibić’s wife [Vesna] is an exquisite chef. She has put together this tasting menu that can rival what you’d see at Michelin-starred restaurants,” Dietrich recalls of his experience. “It’s playful, exquisite and surprising. At the same time, it’s very indigenous because she uses produce and materials that are totally local. And then, of course, you have the wines.”

Meanwhile, Rames recommends every traveler experience a taste of crljenak kastelanski at Zinfandel Food & Wine Bar in Split; Zlatan Otok winery on the island of Hvar; and take part of a “zin origin” tour near the Kastela region (just outside of Split), where the vine was discovered.

One option is the “Origins of Zinfandel” tour with Culinary Croatia. The five-hour outing leads zin lovers to two family-run wineries overlooking the coastline: Bedalov and Kairos. Throughout the day, travelers will dine on fresh local food and sip crljenak kastelanski, all while admiring views of the Adriatic.

“The Zinfandel story, for those wineries in the areas where it can successfully grow, has attracted wine lovers from around the world who flock to see the ancestral home of zinfandel and taste the local wines,” adds Rames. “Tasting them all is an exciting and delicious way to tour the different parts of Croatia where they grow, as well as fully understand Zin’s long history in Croatia and how it contributed to the larger wine story and culture.”

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