Last column, I wrote in defence of wine geekery; here, m’lud, is the argument for the prosecution. You may have heard of Zinfandel, the American grape; you may well distrust what you have heard, since blush – surely the most depressing development in the beverage field since someone worked out you didn’t need oranges to make orange juice – is made from something called white Zinfandel, which is red Zinfandel with the redness taken out and often with various grapes that are not Zinfandel (which isn’t American anyway) added in.
Confused yet? Good, because it’s confusion I want to talk about. You may manage to resist the lure of unpleasantly sweet, almost tasteless pink wines but if you are interested in America’s bolshy, red mouthbombs then you still need Zinfandel, because it’s the second most planted red variety in California. And if you love the hearty pasta and meat dishes of Puglia, in southern Italy, and the luscious but structured reds made from Primitivo that go so well with them, you might like to know that Primitivo and Zinfandel are the same thing.
This story of a long-ago parting, with cuttings taken to the US, their origins lost until the 1970s, is like a star-crossed romance, if rather an incestuous one. And it’s unusual: lots of older grapes have different names in different places – Carignan is Mazuelo in Spain, Grenache is Cannonau in Sardinia, Malbec is Cot in France (although my favourite name for this very black grape is Pied de Perdrix – partridge’s foot, presumably because earlyrising, earth-tending peasants are more likely to notice birds’ feet than night skies) – but mostly their connection was known, if not always clear.
None of this stuff is essential – it’s just useful, for those on a quest to experiment while still buying what they know they’ll enjoy, otherwise known as having your bottle and drinking it. The eminent wine writer Jancis Robinson, with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, has just brought out a 1,300-page book called Wine Grapes, a work of such scholarship it uses cutting-edge DNA analysis to teach me, for example, that Primitivo-Zinfandel is actually from Croatia, where it rejoices in the name Tribidrag. This is a very serious book indeed, yet appropriately – given that wine has been known to provide a bit of entertainment on occasion, some of it inadvertent – Wine Grapes made me laugh aloud. It’s not just some beautifully restrained commentary (“Many an American has argued that Zinfandel is indigenous, notwithstanding the fact that vitis vinifera is not a native species of the Americas”) or occasionally, the deliberate lack of same (“As Zinfandel it is also found in Israel, where American influence is strong”). No: ladies and gentlemen, I believe that I have proven, using the most meticulous DNA technology, that Wine Grapes is actually descended from Tintin.
Once you start to ponder the attempt to avoid confusion between Mazuelo and Carignan by calling the grape Samsó – a move that baffled everybody – or the fact that this grape is no relation to Bovale Sardo, despite sometimes being known as Bovale di Spagna, you may be reminded of the identical twins, Thomson and Thompson, in Tintin and their puzzlement at how anyone could ever mix them up. Many of the names here would have served Tintin’s author, Hergé, well too: the Bastardo grape, also known as Trousseau, or the name of the first person to record the existence of Primitivo: an 18thcentury Italian priest called Francesco Filippo Indellicati.
Wine is not simple; its pleasures are as various as some of its components’ names. Now and then, the intricacies make even a devoted oenophile throw up their hands like Captain Haddock and yell “Billions of blue blistering barnacles!” – which could, come to think of it, work as an alternative name for vitis vinifera.