April 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Shedding Light On The Zinfandel Name

by Miles Lambert-Gócs
It seems a quixotic name for a grape, Zinfandel. Since the variety itself has been positively identified as the Primitivo of Puglia, and ultimately the Crljenak Kaštelanski of Dalmatia, we are likely to imagine a similar origin for the name, perhaps a corruption of some obscure synonym once known around the Adriatic Sea, maybe even leftover from ancient Illyria. But in fact, the name is as Central European in origin as the varietal itself is Dalmatian, and more particularly, with a Czech twist that put the zin- in Zinfandel.

While researching the story of California's Zinfandel variety two decades ago, the closest sounding predecessors I could find for the name Zinfandel were zierfandler and zierfahndler, in a Czech ampelography book1. Austrian ampelographies from the mid-19th century indicated that this type of name was also around a century earlier, in the forms Zierfahnler, Zierfahndler and Zierifahnler2. But while an explanation for the -fandel ending was easy enough to come by, none turned up for the zin- prefix so familiar to us.

However, further research has brought to light a Hungarian etymological article from 1906, in which the varietal name Czilifant was discussed3. The author cited two old Czech variants of the zierfahnler name that have an "n" instead of an "er" in the prefix: Cinifadl and Cy?ifal (the c is pronounced as tz). Moreover, the Cy?ifal variant was found in a work of 1797 and referred specifically to a "black" grape, which demonstrates how a grape variety reached the East Coast of the United States with the name "Black Zinfandel" or "Black Zinfandal" in the first half of the 19th century.

But all of the zierfahnler- and cy?ifal-type names were synonyms of the variety better known in Central Europe by the name "Blue-Frank;" Blaufränkisch in Austria; Kékfrankos in Hungary; Frankovka in the Czech and other Slav lands. This means that it was the "Blue-Frank," not the Zinfandel/Crljenak Kaštelanski/Primitivo, that turned up in East Coast nurseries in the 1830s and 1840s.

A further implication of the old Czech synonyms is that Ágoston Haraszthy may indeed have brought vine cuttings with such a name to California, and that they actually were of the Crljenak Kaštelanski/Primitivo sort, though mislabeled as Zinfandel (the Haraszthy family's story always claimed that a tag on the cuttings was read as "Zinfandel"). This begs the question of how such a mistake might have been made.

Haraszthy purportedly had vine cuttings imported from Europe by another Hungarian political refugee, General Lázár Mészáros, in 1852. Mészáros could have procured them from one of several varietal collections established by Hungarians in the early 19th century.

The earliest and most important of them was that of Demeter Görög, who established his collection, not in Hungary, but in the Austrian wine village of Grinzing, near Vienna, in 1819. Görög's collection became well known to Hungarian winegrowers as a source of vine-stocks, and consequently also became a basis for other Hungarian collections, including some actually located in Hungary4.

Görög assiduously gathered varietals from all parts of the former Kingdom of Hungary, which at that time included Dalmatia. Thus, his collection could have included the Crljenak Kaštelanski, California's "Zinfandel." Collections such as Görög's in any case explain how that variety could have been available through Hungarian channels even though it was not cultivated for wine on the territory of present-day Hungary. It also explains how a tag with a Central European grape name--Zierfahnler or Cinifadl--was inadvertently attached to cuttings of a quite different grape variety.

(Miles Lambert-Gócs is based in Virginia, and may be reached through edit@winesandvines.com.)

1Jozef Blaha, ?eskoslovenská Ampelografia, 1952.
2Franz Trummer, Systematische Classification und Beschreibung der...Rebensorten, 1841; and Ferdinand Dietl, Taschenbuch zur Bestimmung der in Steiermark cultiverten Reben Sorten, 1850.
3Zoltán Gombócz, "A bor" [Wine], in Magyar Nyelv, April, 1906.
4Zsigmond Csoma, "A sz´´ol´´ofajtaváltás és hátás Somlón, XVIII-XX Század [Grape Varietal Change and Effect at Somló, 18th-20th Century], Agrártörténeti Szemle, No. 3-4, 1982, pp. 379-387.
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