Is There More than One Kind of Zinfandel?

Question from Sarah: We were at a restaurant and I ordered a glass of Zinfandel. When the wine came it was dark red instead of pink. I decided to go ahead and try it and I didn’t like it at all. It was really bitter and not nice and sweet the way I like it. Luckily my boyfriend liked it okay. Is there more than one kind of Zinfandel? 

Reply: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for writing! I hope they suggested another wine you might enjoy. We don’t want to lose you as a wine lover! 

I guess you could say there’s more than one kind of Zinfandel. Zinfandel is the name of a grape with a dark, nearly black, skin and clear juice – almost every dark-skinned grape has colorless juice. This fact gives the grape great versatility. Depending upon how long the juice and grape skins are in contact, the winemaker can produce white, pink or red wine.

Making White Zinfandel
White Zinfandel, the wine you thought you had ordered, is, strangely enough, pink! Here’s how it works: The winemaker picks the whole cluster of Zinfandel and then runs it through a machine that removes the stems and breaks the grape skins open. Then he transfers this soupy mixture of juice and skins into a fermentation tank and waits awhile. 

At some point he’ll open a valve to see the color of the juice. When he sees something he likes, he drains all of the juice out of the tank and transfers it to another tank. This is very, very sweet juice – absolutely delicious! 

Next, he adds some yeast. The yeast uses the sugar in the juice as its nutrition. As the sugar is consumed, it’s converted into alcohol and carbon-dioxide gas – it’s called fermentation. If the winemaker never interferes, eventually all of the sugar is used up and the fermentation ends naturally. Wine that has no discernible sweetness is called dry wine. But, I don’t think you’d like it. You’re accustomed to White Zinfandel that’s a bit sweet, right? 

Making it Sweet
There are a couple of ways the winemaker can go to make it sweet. He can prevent the yeast from using up all the sugar by chilling the wine – the yeast can’t work if it’s too cold – it’s like trying to get bread dough to rise in the fridge. Or, he can let the wine go dry and add back sweet juice to sweeten it up. In either case, it’s important that he filters the wine carefully so there’s no yeast left or there’s a risk of spontaneous fermentation in the bottle!

Making Red Zinfandel
The red wine that came to your table was made a little differently. The juice and skins remained in contact throughout the fermentation and perhaps even after it was over. The skins dye the wine dark red, give it more body (it feels heavier on your palate) and contribute tannin, which is the stuff that makes your mouth dry and your teeth feel furry. He lets the yeast use up all the sugar so the wine is dry. 

I’m guessing you didn’t like the wine for these two reasons: the lack of sweetness and the astringency of the tannin. Dry, full-bodied red wine can be somewhat of an acquired taste. 

Rosé, Blush and White Zinfandel
People often ask about the difference in rosé, blush and White Zinfandel. If the label says “Zinfandel”, the law requires that at least 75% of the grapes that were used were Zinfandel grapes. Same deal for White Merlot or any other variety. If the label doesn’t name a grape, the winemaker can blend as he pleases. Any dark grape can be made into rosé or blush wine. Rosé can be sweet or dry; blush and White Zin are nearly always sweet. There’s no regulation for it, it’s just the way things are done.  

So, it’s important to specify that you want White Zinfandel when you order so you get the wine you really want. If the wine is simply called Zinfandel, there’s a good chance it will be a dry red. 

Alternatives
When the day comes that you’re tired of White Zinfandel, you might try a dry rosé, to see how you like it. Or, you might try a glass of Riesling or Gewürtztraminer which are white wines that are fruity, delicate and often a bit sweet. It gives you some variety. From there, who knows where your tastes will lead you. You might even find yourself ordering red Zin one of these days!

I hope that helps! Cheers!   

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