Home / Red Variety / One and the same? – Zinfandel, Primitivo, Crljenak Kaštelanski and Kratošija


Whilst working on ampelography and exploring the Serbian National Library’s collection, I came across an article by Svetozar Savić, entitled ‘Autohtone sorte vinove loze u Crnoj Gori’ (‘Autochtonous wine grapes in Montenegro’), of great interest to lovers of autochthonous wine varieties.

By Mariusz Rybak

If Mr. Savić is right, the order of names in the title of my post should be the opposite way round, as everything started in Montenegro (Crna Gora), where the variety most of us know as Zinfandel or Primitivo has at least three names – KratošijaKrakošija, and Grotošija.

In Croatia, meanwhile, there is more than one name. Whilst Crljenak Kaštelanski is the most popular, various other names are used – PribidragTribidrag, or TibidraghoPrimitivo is the variety’s Italian name, and Zinfandel – needless to say – is the proud Californian grape. Old grape varieties, like mushrooms, tend to have many local names.

Having read the article, I realized that much of the discourse is to be found on the omniscient Wikipedia. The difference to what you can read on Wikipedia, however, is that the roots of the variety can now be traced even further, both to the south and into history.

For the discovery that Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same variety, we owe thanks to Austin Goheen of the University of California Davis. Ampelographers at his university confirmed the identity of the vines from Puglia and California in 1972. Already in 1962, however, a Montenegrin scientist, Marko Ulićević, claimed that Zinfandel and Kratošija are the same variety of grapevine.

In the nineties there was a theory that Zinfandel was also identical to Plavac Mali from Croatia; an idea represented first of all by the celebrated Californian wine-maker of Croatian origin, Mike Grgich. However, the hypothesis was not corroborated by Carole Meredith’s genetic tests.

Be that as it may, it seems that the Croatians decided to prove the Dalmatian origin of Zinfandel and at the beginning of the century they came up with Crljenak Kaštelanski, which is indeed the same variety as Zinfandel and Primitivo. It is, however, one thing is to discover that some vines are identical, quite another to find out the origin of them all.

Do the celebrated products of Sonoma and Manduria (Primitivo di Manduria DOC) owe their beauty to a hybridization and/or selection that started on the Croatian coast?

From earlier Croatian ampelographers, like Stjepan Bulić, we know that Crljenak was rather a rare variety of Dalmatia, even marginal when considering the fact that in the nineteenth century it was only present in the region of Imotski. In 2001, only 20 vines of the variety were found in the whole of Croatia. It’s a very small population, especially when comparing its popularity in Montenegro, along with its long history over there.

On the other hand, the history of Primitivo can be traced into the eighteenth century; although the first documents mentioning this name are from the second half of the nineteenth century. This excludes Italy as a region of origin for this variety, but not as the origin for Zinfandel vines from California. The mentioned small population and marginal role of these grapes in Croatia may suggest that plants, which became known as Zinfandel, were brought to the USA either from Puglia in Italy or from Montenegro. Did migrants from one of these countries bring them? Most probably, but we still don’t know.

One is however sure – ZinfandelPrimitivoCrljenak Kaštelanski and Kratošija are one and the same variety, which sometimes is able to give exceptional wines. Therefore it wouldn’t be a bad idea to discover the region of its origin – the country of old Greek colonies where the coast is a result of cultural exchange between Montenegrins and Venetians, and so is the architecture and food.

Kratošija means ‘short neck’, and ‘neck’ stands here for ‘stalk’. In Montenegro, it mostly gives easy-going, refreshing wines of a deeply-red coloir, but even more often becomes a part of premium cuvees with Vranac. Unfortunately I cannot recommend any Kratošija wine as my private discovery of Montenegro is still on the to-do list. On the other hand, the biggest producer of the country – “13 jul-Plantaže” – who own over a half of Montenegrin vineyards, uses Kratošija only in cuvees too. So there is no other way but to search for smaller, barely known wineries on site. At least since the end of World War Two, Kratošija is grown also in Macedonia, but I’m skeptical about the quality of that from the huge industrial winery of ‘Tikveš’, though I need to try first before judging.

Kratošija may be an autochthonous Montenegrin variety (see e.g. Dušan Burić 1985, 1995) and some old texts may point to the fact that it has been present in Montenegrin vineyards for centuries, but it’s still waiting to be rediscovered. I could barely find any information about it, not even in Montenegrin sources.

There is, therefore, still much to be done in the process of describing and promoting Balkan wines – a no doubt quite worthy job.

Mariusz Rybak is currently researching Serbian wine culture and the notion of wine as a cultural good. His musings on such topics can be read on his blog, Kawa and Vino.

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