crljenak kastelanski, the mystery grape

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield—crljenak kastelanski, the mystery grape—june 2020

Archeological evidence indicates that the domestication of Vinus vinifera began in the Caucasus region (between the Black Sea and the Caspian) around 6000 B.C. Whether Crljenak Kaštelanski was first grown in Armenia or Azerbaijan is not known, but it was later moved to the Dalmatian coast of Croatia where it was discovered by genetic testing in 2001. The grape had been moved into Italy to the Apulia (Puglia) region on the heel of Italy, just across the Adriatic Sea from Croatia. Here, it became known as Primitivo. Primitivo was derived from the Italian word primaticcio which was in reference to the grapes tendency to ripen first or early. Crljenak, of which a bunch is shown nearby, was one of the most ancient viniferous grapes and survived without further domestication. The picture shows some important genetic features; namely that the grapes are loosely packed and, the ripe grapes are present with green grapes and every stage of ripening in between. This will become an important feature in determining when to harvest. Other grape varieties were domesticated and bred to eliminate these genetic traits and provide for tighter bunches and even ripening.

Crljenak Kaštelanski was acquired by the Austrian monarchy in 1797 during the fateful and egotistical acquisition (that would lead to WWI) of Croatia and the Dalmatian territories that had been part of the Republic of Venice. Under the genetically inbred Hapsburgs, ironically, this grape variety was not hybridized but cultivated in the imperial nursery in Vienna. George Gibbs, a Long Island NY horticulturist purchased cuttings of Crljenak from the Schonbrunn Palace in the 1820s and started hothouse cultivation of this grape under the name Black Zinfardel of Hungary derived from the German czirifandli. Later Gibbs supplied Samuel Perkins and Charles Hovey, in Boston, with the grape where it was raised in heated greenhouses and advertised as “Zenfendal." Another nurseryman, William Prince, also obtained cuttings of this grape, which is slowly revealing itself, and took it to California during the Gold Rush of 1848, where it became known as Zinfandel, In my opinion, all the twists and turns Crljenak took in getting to its ultimate home, make this one of the most serendipitous trips of one of the great grapes that made California wines historically important.

In California the true nature of the Zinfandel emerged in the family gardens of Italian immigrants like the Martini's, Gallo's, Sebastiani's, Ponzo's, Dusi's, Guadagni's, Blasi's and Mazzoni's to name a few as they were reunited with the grape (Primitivo) of their Italian ancestors. The climate of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties reminded them of their Italian origins and the grape itself was easy to plant, ripened early and gave a beautiful wine that matched the southern Italian cuisine of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, garlic and pasta. The Italians, true to their native land tended to raise multiple grape varieties like most farmers and gardeners who plant several varieties of tomatoes to avoid disaster should disease affect one of them. It was natural for them to ferment the different grapes together (called co-fermenting) or to use field blends of the several varieties when making their wines. In addition to Zinfandel these farmers raised Mataro, Papera, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir. Often the grapes were interplanted with the Zinfandel. The Historical Vineyard Society has identified 28 varieties so far during its mission to preserve these old vineyards and the old vine grapes that were planted in them.

The idea of bottling single variety wines came in the 1960s as vintners focused on bottling the very best grape varieties in hopes of creating a “brand." Robert Mondavi's “Fume blanc" which was just Sauvignon Blanc, is case in point. This is also an indication of the tendency of all types of farmers in the US to single crop farms as a way of becoming more efficient. The trend away from crop diversity was disastrous for Zinfandel though, because of the way that the grape ripens. The nearby picture illustrates the uneven ripening of Zinfandel. With that in mind, when the grape clusters are harvested some grapes in the cluster are over ripe or even starting to look like raisins. When the raisined grapes are fermented the alcohol, level is driven up enormously. I've seen some Zinfandels with alcohol levels as high as 16-17 percent. The California wine industry had a horrible love affair with these high alcohol “Monster" Zins in the 1980s that lasted into the new millennium where single variety Zinfandels with high alcohols dominated. Thankfully this trend is disappearing as more wineries return to the old Italian's way of blending Zinfandel with other varieties. Another process called co-fermenting has also led to tamed alcohol levels as well.

There are some wineries that stayed true to the old ways (pre-1980s) of making Zinfandel. These wineries are some of my favorites because they eschewed the herd mentality that led to the port-like Zinfandels. They co-fermented or used field blends. Furthermore, they meticulously sorted getting rid of overripe, diseased or underripe grapes makes the resulting wines more consistent bottle to bottle.

Nalle Winery which debuted in 1984 was one of my favorite Zins when they first came into business, but over the next ten years they disappeared from the wine stores in the Midwest. I believe that they stayed true to their core principles and as a result they didn't grow too big; so nationwide distribution wasn't in the cards for them. I got reacquainted with them this year and joined their wine club, so I get a shipment from them every six months. Doug Nalle is still running the outfit and his wine is a 50/50 blend of Nalle Estate Old Vine Zin and Bernier-Sibary field blend. It is 92 percent Zin, 6 percent petite Sirah and 2 percent Carignane. It is aged in French oak, 25 percent new, for 11 months. Nalle also hand sorts his grapes before crushing. The alcohol level is 13.9 percent which emphasizes the bramble fruit character that makes this a great food wine. I opened one bottle for this article but the other five need another six months to a year to show their best. My favorite of the tasting!

While Nalle was the best, Frogs Leap was a close second. During the intervening years when I couldn't get Nalle, Frogs leap was my go-to Zin for lasagna and homemade sheet pizza with sausage and poblano peppers. I love all their wines because John Williams has also embraced the old ways of making low alcohol, high toned, polished wines that accompany food. At 14.3 percent alcohol it is still within my tolerable range. The blend is 82 percent Zin, 14 percent Petite Sirah and 4 percent Carignane. If you can find this wine put some in the cellar for a year and try it, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Aging in 50 percent American oak for 13 months is what gives this wine its claret like quality that needs some bottle age. There is also a comfort level imparted psychologically if you are a conservationist, because of John Williams devotion to nature. There's a reason that frog is on the bottle.

Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys Sonoma County Zinfandel is the third of my long-time favorites. Paul Draper the now retired vintner, who joined his partners, three PhD electrical engineers at Stanford in 1964 when the company incorporated, likes to talk about how Ridge makes pre-industrial wines. He reminisces about tasting wines from Inglenook that were made in the 1930s and how good they were. These same companies' wines just a decade later had changed for the worse because men were trying to “make" the wine as an industrial process rather than harvesting the grapes at the right level of ripeness and not interfering with modern industrial techniques and chemicals. Needless to say, this could be a whole new topic or even a book. Let's just say for brevity purposes that the German inventions in organic chemistry that led to pesticides and herbicides had a profound effect on the world. Ridge makes wines that use native yeasts rather than cultured yeasts; in the vineyard cover crops and manure have replaced commercial enzymes, nutrients and pesticides; Ridge uses taste tests not recipes and all the ingredients in the bottle are on the label for transparency. This particular wine is 14.3 percent alcohol. It is 68 percent Zin, 15 percent Carignane, 12 percent Petite Sirah and 5 percent Grenache. My wife and I had this with grilled Italian sausages and a pepper salad. There is a video in the Ridge website that shows the hand sorting of the grapes after picking. All of these wines are between $25-30 dollars a bottle which reflects the great care taken to produce these wonderful wines. They are worth the money and the sense of comfort knowing that all these folks are taking care of the planet.

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