This mid-season ripening grape produces highly alcoholic wines, particularly if grown in California’s Central valley.
Zinfandel is the workhorse of California’s viticulture and wine industry suitable for producing “white zin”, regular standard red table wine, dessert wines, and sometimes even fortified wines.
When fully ripe and in the hands of knowledgeable winemakers, zinfandel yields delectable, aromatic, rich, potent wines smelling of raspberries.
It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, grape varieties planed in fertile California, and was brought over by Italian immigrants from Puglia. Some researchers claim Agoston Haraszthasys, the father of California viticulture, to have brought zinfandel among other varieties from Europe.
Over the past century and a half, the original zinfandel mutated to the vine it is today.
For the longest time researchers thought it was a southern Italian grape variety known as primitivo, but the latest genetic research points to Croatia.
When Miljenko Grgic, a Croat winemaker, arrived at the Souverain Cellars in 1958 zinfandel vineyards surrounded the vinery which he identified as plavac mali, a popular red grape variety in Croatia, but later Dr. P Males of University f California, Davis claimed placav mali to be the same as primitvo and zinfandel.
Now we know through the work of professor Ivan Pejic and Edi Maletic of the University of Zagreb that plavac mali had different clones, and one old vine crljenak kastelanski was the ur-primitivo .
Dr. C. Meredith, a professor of viticulture at University of California, Davis, established this through DN A analysis based on the field work of two Croat professors of oenology.
It is most likely that zinfandel acclimatized in California and now has a different taste profile.
Regardless of its origin, the California zinfandel yields wines that differ substantially from primitvo wines produced in Puglia and elsewhere in Italy.
Between its arrival in California in February of 1852 and the subsequent rapid expansion of plantings through 1860’s, it gained considerable popularity and by 1884 it was the most widely planted red variety in the state.
Today it thrives in Sonoma County, Napa Valley has some acreage, as does Santa Barbara further south.
To my mind, Amador County adjacent to the Central Valley produces superb zinfandels that yield outstanding wines in the hands of skilled winemakers.
Coastal regions in California also produce fine fruit.
Zinfandel is bewilderingly flexible. Some are light and fruity, others medium weight and balanced, yet others dark intensely fruity wines to cellar for one or two decades.
The most popular zinfandel still today is off dry white zinfandel invented by Sutter Home winery in the Napa Valley a little more than a decade ago during a glut of red wine, when few wanted to drink it. In desperation, the owner of the Sutter Home made an off dry saigne zinfandel and dubbed it white zinfandel – the wine took off and ever since gained market share. It suits the American palate used to sweet foods and wines.
Traditional wineries still make zinfandel wines that are fruity, full bodied with a good grip and long aftertaste, suitable for deeply flavoured beef stews, medium rare steaks, game specialties, hard cheeses to name just as few possibilities.
There are many California wineries that specialize in zinfandel and they tend to excel with their varietal wines particularly those labelled old vine zinfandel.
There is no law regulating the age of vines to qualify for the term, but some wineries source from vineyards that still have century old vines.
Rosenblum and Ravenswood specialize in zinfandel and produce fine single vineyard, and estate wines including general purpose zinfandels.
Cline, Mondavi, Karly, Trinchero Family Estate, Fetzer, Kendall-Jackson, Trinity Oaks, Firestone, J. Phelps, Heitz and many others produce fine zinfandels.
This grape deserves a more prominent place in the industry and among wine enthusiasts. It represents, besides everything else, good value and an amazing range of styles.