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Monday, May 2, 2016

Will Zinfandel Ever Find Its Way?

Zinfandel is called America's grape. Maybe should be called America's most misunderstood grape. Okay, you could make a case for Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and probably a couple other for being misunderstood, but Zin is bigger than any of those.

Where is it from, how did it get to California, is it the same as Primitivo, where should it be grown, what style should it be made in? Heck, even what color is it supposed to be? These are a few of the questions surrounding Zinfandel.

Zinfandel's DNA

It was only in the last couple decades that it was found to come from an obscure and nearly extinct grape from Croatia of all places. It has also finally been decided that it is the same grape as Primitivo from southern Italy. For a long time local growers thought of Primitivo as a different grape so some have planted and are making a Primitivo, sometimes alongside their Zinfandel. The feds who control these things finally decided we can use either name for the same grape (to add to the confusion).

California History

There are various theories, but it seems Zin appeared in NY state in the early 1800s and probably made its way across the country during the gold rush. A lot of foodstuffs and supplies came to the West Coast to support the miners. Most of those that did get rich off of the gold rush did it by supporting the mining activity and lived in places like San Francisco or Sacramento and they wanted wine.

Ups and Downs

Zinfandel was a blending grape for jug wines and has massive Central Valley plantings. When it became a somewhat popular variety about 50 years ago Zin still played second (or third or fourth) fiddle to other red wines -- Cabernet, Merlot, and Pinot Noir, for instance.

Zinfandel came close to dying out as a popular wine until the "invention" of White Zinfandel in the  1970s by Sutter Home. By the 1980s it was hugely popular and still is today. In the last part of the 20th century Zinfandel reinvented itself as a premium red wine with single vineyard old vine Zins and with a stylistic change from a dry red table wine to a fruity, softer wine (lower acids, higher alcohol) loved by the critics.

Head-pruned vs trellised vines
Old Vine

What makes old vine Zinfandel special? Old vines means just that--the vines have been around a long time. How long? Well, there's no definition on what old vine means so anybody could legally say their wine is from old vines. If you ask people in the industry they'll say 30 years or 50 years or it has to be head pruned, not trellised. As grape vines pass about 30 years of age the amount of fruit they can produce falls off. Some old vines produce less than half of what a younger vine would, but the fruit tends to be more intense--just what many Zin lovers want.

Confusion in the Market

When you buy a bottle are you getting the more restrained food-friendly wine or are you getting the powerhouse, jammy version? Is it worth paying extra because it's labeled old vine? Zinfandel is grown in so many regions and there are differences between Dry Creek Valley, Amador, Lodi, Paso Robles, and all the other regions.

Some folks are still confused when they see a red Zinfandel thinking Zin should only be pink.

Growing Zinfandel

The wine industry says Zinfandel is versatile and can be grown in any climate zone in the state except the coldest areas. Coastal Sonoma County would be considered too cold for Zin. Just because it can be grown in hotter areas doesn't mean it should. There is a lot of Zin grown in California with the majority in the warm Central Valley where it's used as a blending grape in less expensive wines. There is 47,000 acres planted statewide. About 10% of that is in Sonoma County, with half of the county's total in Dry Creek Valley. Dry Creek is a warm, but not hot, growing region that puts out some fabulous wines and Zinfandel is the shining star of Dry Creek.

Buying Zinfandel

How do you choose? Three things are key for me -- where it's grown, the alcohol level on the bottle's label, and the winery's reputation. Not just its reputation just for making quality wine, but the style of wine. If you buy one from Dry Creek Valley it will be strikingly different than one from Lodi. A Zin labeled at 14% alcohol will definitely be different than one at 15.5%. One from the Wilson Winery will not be similar to one from Dry Creek Vineyards even though the wineries are only a couple miles apart.

Some suggested wineries from the North Coast for the big Zin style:  Biale, Carol Shelton, Hartford, Wilson
Suggestions for the more restrained style: Dry Creek Vineyards, Nalle, Pedroncelli, Ridge/Lytton Springs, Storybook

Here's a full-throttle Zin for you
Labelled at 15.8% alcohol

Looking at it by region cooler areas like Russian River Valley will be a bit more restrained whereas the bigger Zins can be found is the warmer areas like Lodi or Paso Robles. Yes, this ia a big generalization, but it gives you a starting point.

Since there seems to be two different camps in styles which should you buy? As always, it's what you like. I find the big, lush Zins are best as "cocktail" wines whereas the lower alcohol, subtle ones are usually better food wines. So think about the situation you're going to be in when having the wine.


Yes, Zinfandel is all over the board in styles.