Zinfandel is often called "California's own grape." That's sorta true in that CA is pretty much the only place you see it today. The history is a bit more convoluted as DNA testing by UC Davis has traced it back to Croatia. Zinfandel showed up on the East Coast in the 1830s and the West Coast in the 1850s. It's the same as Primitivo or, more specifically, Primitivo is now thought to be an earlier ripening clone of Zinfandel. Zinfandel was almost wiped out in Croatia by the Phylloxera epidemic over a hundred years ago.
|Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel|
Thought to be Sonoma's oldest vineyard
Image from buckzin.com
Zinfandel fell out of favor in the late 20th century in California with the boom in varietal labeling rather than jug wine blends. Chardonnay and Cabernet were the kings of California wine. If it hadn't been for the "invention" of the wildly popular White Zinfandel we'd have lost a lot of Zin vineyards as they would have been uprooted and planted with something else.
A Side Note
Finding Primitivo as an earlier ripening clone of Zinfandel and less prone to bunch rot is an interesting discovery. The 2010 and 2011 harvests in Sonoma County have been tough on Zinfandel. Maybe some growers will be looking more at Primitivo.
Zinfandel comes in three distinct forms. First White Zinfandel as mentioned. As a red wine there are the traditional and ripe styles.
|A restrained, food-friendly Zin|
Image from nallewinery.com
The traditional Zins are heavier, but more restrained, more structured, will age, and are better as an accompaniment to food. These Zins can have black and red fruit flavors with usually a peppery spice and something I call "brambleberry" that I can't actually describe well but I know it when I sense it. Some typical Zinfandels in this style are those from Dry Creek Vineyards, Kenwood, and Ridge/Lytton Springs. Otherwise, you can guess at a Zin being more restrained if the alcohol is below 14.5%. If you see them listed at 15% or higher then you are definitely into the ripe version.
|A big boy|
Image from hartfordwines.com
Is one style better than the other? That's up to whatever you like. I prefer the restrained, traditional style because I usually age red wines and I expect my Zinfandel to go with a nice tomato-based, maybe slightly spicy, pasta dish or grilled meat.
If you've maybe sampled a couple of Zinfandels and have been turned off don't give up! Look for different styles. And look for Zin from "Zinfandel-Central," Dry Creek Valley.