Grape of the Week: Zinfandel


With the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) Festival only about a week away, let’s talk Zin!

For a long time we called Zinfandel “The California grape.” In fact, I still see references to Zin as a uniquely American or Californian wine. That, in spite of the fact that it doesn’t look like, taste like or have the growing habits of native-American varieties. Everything about it screams vinifera (vines of European origin) but no one could find its European counterpart. And, foolishly, because it didn’t appear to have the European pedigree, added on to the fact that its generosity of yield made it a staple for “jug reds”, it didn’t get much respect until recently.

Does it deserve respect? You betcha! If it isn’t truly a California grape, it’s certainly our heritage grape. This was the most popular wine variety in California in the late 1800s up until prohibition. Thank heavens for the industrious home winemakers and bootleggers during those thirteen years. Without them, most of the Zin would have been planted over to prunes or walnuts and we wouldn’t be able to enjoy all the wonderful old-vine Zins we take for granted today. And, thanks go to the White Zinfandel producers beginning in the 1970s, too. Same story. Without White Zin, most of those old vines would have been bulldozed decades ago, when red Zin fell out of favor. Today, Zinfandel is #4 on the list of top varieties planted in California, behind Merlot (#3), Cabernet (#2) and Chardonnay.

TIP! When you buy a California “field blend” Zinfandel is usually a major player, if not the lead player.

It’s a long, convoluted story but the Cliff Notes version is that in the 1990s, a vine very similar to Zinfandel was found in Puglia – the heel of the boot in Italy. In fact this variety, Primitivo, proved to have the same DNA as Zinfandel. This ongoing DNA research revealed that Zinfandel/Primitivo was a parent of the Croatian variety, Plavac Mali. Now, we’re getting somewhere! Early in this century, thanks to a cooperative effort between UC Davis and the University of Zagreb, Zin/Primitivo was traced back to a nearly extinct Croatian variety called Crljenak Kastenlanski (try saying that after a few glasses of Zin.) Your tax dollars at work!

ZAP isn’t so pleased that the federal government allows Italian Primitivo to be labeled and marketed as Zinfandel in this country, but there’s really nothing to be done about it. The complaint is that clonal differences make their Primitivo different in character from our Zin. Hard to understand, at least for me, not being a scientist, that two different clones of the same variety have the same DNA. Nevertheless, it’s true!    

What to Expect
Unbridled berries! Zesty raspberry jam, boysenberries, the wonderful, brambly scent of wild berries you get when you’re hiking on a warm day. And spice! Often in the form of black pepper. Winemakers tend to go easy on the oak to let the fruit be the driver.

Volume: Anywhere from medium bodied – some are made in a sort of claret style (light-bodied Bordeaux style) – and others are simply HUGE! The best way to know? Check the alcohol. Under 14% it will probably be medium to full bodied, very fruity and dry with a lively acidity. The cheap ones are likely to be thin. The vine is a workhorse and can really produce, but over-cropping waters down the flavor.

When the alcohol climbs up to 15, 16, even 17% the wine will be very weighty – likely somewhat port-like. Some of these high-octane wines are slightly sweet, presumably because the yeast gave up the fight in the face of all the alcohol and the fermentation stopped prematurely. But they’re marketed as table wine. I should add that you can buy late-harvest Zinfandel, which is meant to be used as you would port wine.

Where does all this alcohol come from? It’s a funny grape – or I should say, cluster. While it likes the heat, it shrivels very easily. Many is the disconcerted winemaker who thought he picked his Zin at 24 or 25% sugar and finds that, after crushing the grapes into the tank and measuring again, it’s 30% (the more sugar the more alcohol.) There were little raisins hiding in there amidst the nice, plump berries. At this point the vocabulary tends to become rather colorful!

For those aged in new barrels, layer on vanilla (which accentuates the tendency toward sweetness), cloves and other baking spices, grilled bread, mocha…

Pucker factor: Moderate. Zinfandel is a thin-skinned grape, so usually not very tannic.

Good Eats!
Grilled anything, from Ahi to tri-tip. Ribs! Slather on that barbecue sauce and let the Zin flow! The acidity stands up to tomato-based dishes, which may account for its reputation as a spaghetti red and pizza wine.  Slow-cooked pork and beef dishes. the claret-styles will work with poultry, including your Thanksgiving turkey. Burgers! Medium hard to hard cheeses.

Hungry, hungry, hungry… Cheers!

Send me your wine question     I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!

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