The mystery of Zinfandel grape origin

Story of the almost forgotten wine sort

For a long time, it was believed that Zinfandel is an American heritage grape. However, the mystery of this wine sort origin leads us back to the 15th century and Croatian seaside.

Popularity at the Californian vineyards

At first, Zinfandel was used for coloring already renowned varietals such as Chianti and Burgundy. Then, winemakers started to use it as a single-wine grape. In the East of the USA, this sort didn’t draw much attention, but when it reached the West Coast, it gained popularity. During the 19th century, Zinfandel became the most cherished wine sort of Californian vineyards. The quality of the grape was so superb that Zinfandel soon captured the hearts of many wine lovers throughout the country. Since this varietal couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world, for a long time, it was considered an American heritage grape.

American and Croatian wine experts unravel the mystery

American wine expert Carole Meredith was scratching her head in a search for the answers. Her team was made up of French, Swiss, and many scientists from other countries, but not a single one from Croatia. About the time she was trying to find Croatian experts that could help her to find Zinfandel’s roots, Meredith received an e-mail from the University of Zagreb’s geneticist Ivan Pejić. Pejić wanted to cooperate with Meredith on the preservation of Croatian autochthonous varieties. Soon, Meredith and professors Ivan Pejić and Edi Miletić from the Faculty of Agriculture in Zagreb were working together on the mission to discover Zinfandel’s origin.

Edi Maletić, Carole Meredith, and Ivan Pejić in the Crljenak Kaštelanski vineyard in Kastela, Croatia. Photo credit: Ivica Radunić.

The American-Croatian team was spending so much time together that their collaboration turned into a friendship. By the end of 2001, the team collected more than 150 various samples of grapevines from old Dalmatian vineyards. Amongst them, there was one matching with Zinfandel. They found genetically the same varietal named Crljenak kaštelanski. As their research showed, later on, Crljenak kaštelanski had a few different names: Pribidrag, Kratošija, and Tribidrag. Tribidrag was the oldest name used for this famous sort, dating back to the 15th century.

Croatian writers from 15th century and Tribidrag

Conducting an even more sophisticated method of analyzing the old leaves from the herbarium of ampelographer Stjepan Bulić resulted in interesting findings. Tribidrag, forgotten Croatian wine sort from the 15th century, was the oldest ancestor of Zinfandel. There are even written evidence to prove this theory. Tribidrag is mentioned in a significant literary work of the Croatian Renaissance “Fishing and fishing complaints” from the 15th century by Petar Hektorović. The legend says Nikola, Paskoj, and Petar sailed by boat for three days from Hvar to Šolta, fishing and enjoying the divine taste of Tribidrag. Furthermore, other famous Croatian authors from that era like Marko Marulić and Hanibal Lucić also worshiped this wine sort, grown in Dalmatia and on the islands as a variety of royal reputation.

Visit Hvar - home of the 15th-century writer Petar Hektorović.

Almost forgotten wine sort

At the end of the 20th century, due to the appearance of phylloxera and other native American pests, Tribidrag in Dalmatia almost disappeared. Local winemakers were focused on growing other, more resistant varietals such as Plavac mali and pushed out Tribidrag from Dalmatia’s vineyards. There were only a few individual grapevines found in Kaštel and Omiš after a long and thorough search. The American-Croatian team, with professor Carole Meridith in charge, restored the glory of this almost forgotten wine sort. Today, Tribidrag is grown across the Dalmatia, and there are about 20 labels of this wine sort on the market.

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Barbara Boltiš

August 26, 2020

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