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Croatian Origins of Zinfandel Wines

Croatian Origins of Zinfandel Wines

A lot has been written about the origins of grape varieties and, incidentally, much has been made of the genetic relationship between a variety US winelovers used to rightfully consider their signature grape and its parent variety, Croatia’s Tribidrag or Crljenak. But this is not yet another article about the origins of Zinfandel. OK, they are genetically the same. So what?

Genetics can mean all or nothing. It can only get you so far in your quest for that one, elusive expression of grape juice which sends you swooning and you’ll never be the same again. What wine lovers seek cannot be achieved by a grape’s varietal qualities alone. Science can help us understand nature, but it is nature that enables us to perceive wine’s different expressions, themselves determined by countless other factors.

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We all knew that, but the kinship between Zin and Crljenak: Tribidrag becoming a scientifically established fact was still a game-changer. Just for starters, the once sparsely grown Tribidrag (Crljenak Kaštelanski) nowadays features in the portfolios of many Dalmatian winemakers. Had it not been for this scientific discovery, some seriously good wines would never exist, and Croatia’s striking Dingač vineyards would still be its only claim to global fame.

But can this influence work the other way around, too? What does it really mean for hundreds of thousands of quality Zinfandel bottles made in California? How could a tiny and obscure little wine country such as Croatia all of a sudden start exerting influence over a well-established market, such as that dominated by California’s Zin?zinfandel-origins-3

Incidentally, more and more wine lovers have recently been ordering a specific varietal wine from The Wine&More… and the variety is – Zinfandel. Of course, in Croatia it goes under a host of other names: Tribidrag, Pribidrag, Crljenak… What moves most of these wine lovers ordering bottles of some obscure Crljenak Kaštelanski is genuine curiosity and a desire to understand any similarities or differences between California’s Zin and its Croatian ancestor.

Not surprisingly, perhaps: wine lovers searching for knowledge and answers need reference points. Sooner or later, you might as well end up realising that Pinot Noir you were obsessing about actually has more in common with Shiraz than it does with a fine Burgundy. At which point, you either switch over to Shiraz or you start exploring the Cote d’Or. Along the way, you might also, for instance, find yourself comparing an Oregon Pinot to whatever bottle of Chambolle-Musigny happens to be at hand.

The more you taste, the more you train your palate and memory, the more you pursue peculiar profiles, the likelier you are to gradually develop a deeper insight. And then, before you know it, your favorite Zin is no longer your good old trusty long-time favourite, but instead one of Ridge’s terroir-driven bottlings from Sonoma.

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It is a thankless task to try and get a read on the exact degree to which Croatia’s Zinfandels can actually influence California Zin’s established markets, but then, figures alone will never paint the whole picture, will they?

Influence in terms of style and character, though, can be crucial.

The Wine and More’s largest markets happen to be the largest wine markets generally: the US and UK. In 2020, however, we also saw an increasing interest in Croatian wines from Scandinavian countries. Overall, “Croatian Zinfandels” as a category have seen an 19% growth over the period. The figures themselves are still minuscule from a global or US market perspective, but, if we look at what exactly drove this growing demand, an interesting picture begins to emerge. We noticed that many orders were of Tribidrag or Crljenak wines alone. Our Customer Care has found out that 7 out of 10 of Tribidrag/Crljenak purchases are driven by a desire to compare Californian Zinfandel, Italian Primitivo and Croatian Tribidrag/Crljenak. Wine buffs like to organise theme parties and share their experience. More often than not, this will materialise in a blind tasting of bottles focussing on the Zinfandel/Primitivo/Tribidrag triad. Insight is shared and bottles are evaluated at these gatherings, while potential buying decisions take shape.

Croatian Zinfandel Wine Case
$207.28$232.361393,08 HRK1561,64 HRK

Those fully immersed in a given theme often spread their influence to others, and not necessarily because they are all Instagram influencers, but simply by word-of-mouth and personal recommendation.

Multiply that kind of situation, and eventually a change in preference will occur. Marketwise, it is a well-established fact that wine styles go in and out of fashion. It might not always be as extreme as “oaked” vs. “anything-but-wood”, but consumers and wineries tend to adapt based on whatever is perceived as a likely improvement.

A likely improvement, I say. But then, what does “better” mean? And “better” than what?

“Better”, too, is, of course, a concept that needs defining and redefining. Over and over again.

Nenad Trifunovic
Professional Wine drinker ;)

Moderator of a series of wine workshops and educator of wine course (Wine Reading), promoter of table culture and wine writer, most famous as an author of the most influential Croatian wine blog (vinopija.com).

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