How an Ancient Croatian Grape Became America’s Signature Wine

old vines in Croatia overlooking the sea
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Nearly vowel-less and difficult for English speakers to pronounce, Crljenak Kaštelanski (surl-YEN-ack cas-tuh-LON-skee) was once a rare, obsolescent grape variety. But it shares heritage with one of the United States’ most beloved wines, Zinfandel.  

“Zinfandel is California’s own red wine,” said Harold Olmo and Maynard Amerine, acclaimed viticulturists from the University of California, Davis, in a coauthored article in Wines & Vines in 1938. 

How did it come to be known as such? 

Zinfandel is known by many names: Crljenak Kaštelanski (and Tribidrag) in Croatia; Primitivo in Italy; and Kratošija in Montenegro. It played an integral part in the establishment of California’s wine industry.  

Crljenak, from the Croatian region of Kaštela in Dalmatia, is identical genetically to Zinfandel, though its ancestry was once in question. Sites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com didn’t exist for agricultural products in the early 2000s when a worldwide quest for the origins of Zin were underway. 

Carole Meredith, a UC-Davis professor emeritus, ampelographer and plant geneticist, set out on a multi-year journey during the 1990s to uncover the grape’s long-lost heritage.  

“Zinfandel comes from Croatia,” said Meredith. “The grape we call Zinfandel, and the grape Italians call Primitivo, are both Crljenak Kaštelanski.” 

Crljenak has also been studied by faculty from the University of Zagreb, Croatia, as well as Mike Grgich, founder and winemaker at Napa’s Grgich Hills Estate. 

In the 1950s, Grgich stumbled upon Crljenak vines upon arriving in the United States. Initially, he thought that they descended from Plavac Mali, Croatia’s most planted red grape, after he noticed the shape of the leaves and size of the berries. But as it turns out, Crljenak was actually a parent of Plavac Mali. 

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Crljenak was nearly extinct in Croatia before the UC-Davis study, but after the study’s findings were released, new plantings sprouted due to renewed interest in the old Croatian variety and its connection to California. 

There are currently around 250 acres of Crljenak planted in Croatia, but there was a dearth of them in the ’90s. Croatia didn’t have enough of its own indigenous rootstock to keep up with demand, so the country then imported it from California, which further cemented the connection between Zinfandel and Crljenak.  

Other theories also circulated about its obsolescence, one of which involved climate. 

A Six-Bottle Master Class to Zinfandel

To the outside observer, the Croatian climate appears ideal for wine grapes: warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters along the coast. Inland, there’s a shift to a continental climate, where it’s cold and snowy in the winter and hot and humid in the summer. Then there’s the bura, the northeasterly wind known to wreak havoc.  

These various climatic influences can often create a harsh growing environment for grapes. Crljenak is not known to be a very hardy grape, so Darwin’s theory of natural selection came into play and, without dedicated resources for its cultivation, it gradually died off.  

How did Crljenak get to California? 

The story goes that Romans transported vines from what is now Croatia across the Adriatic to Puglia, Italy, which boasted lush environs and a milder climate. Crljenak vines were among those brought to the States from the collection of vines left over from the Empire.  

They first landed in Long Island, New York, in the 1820s, when they were brought over from the Austro-Hungarian empire by the owner of a nursery. A few decades later, after the grape was popularized across the Northeast, the vines made their way to California with a Massachusetts nursery owner. 

Following the California Gold Rush, the grape had proliferated and became the state’s most widely planted grape by the end of the 19th century. 

Whether called Crljenak, Primitivo, Tribidrag or Zinfandel, it’s the same grape with the same DNA profile, but its flavor profile is mostly based on terroir

California Zinfandels that are most similar to Croatian Crljenak come from the Dry Creek area of Sonoma County, according to Mirena Bagur, co-founder of import company Croatian Premium Wine. In Croatia, Crljenak thrives on limestone soils and hilly terrain, which is what’s found in the Dry Creek area.  

Many Croatian vineyards are planted on steep slopes that range from 30° to 45°. This ensures there’s lots of wind, while salt from the sea seeps into the soil to lend salinity, says Bagur. There are lots of tannins in the wine as well. 

“[Crljenak] in Croatia is typically made as a varietal wine,” says Sinisa Lasan, named Croatia’s Best Sommelier three times and a judge for the Decanter World Wine Awards.  

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“[It] is usually a… full-bodied wine with [fairly high] acidity, tannins, and medium-plus to high alcohol,” says Lasan. “Fruit aromas range from ripe red fruits, such as cranberries, cherries, red plum to dark fruit, such as blackberries and blueberries.”  

With the resurgence of Crljenak in Croatia, a new generation of winemakers are creating more structured wines that are made to age.  

“If added to a blend, it brings its bright acidity, elevates body and adds red fruits with a touch of pepper,” says Lasan. The global potential for this once near-extinct grape seems boundless. 

Published on February 11, 2021
Topics: Grape Varieties