Zinfandel has been called America's grape.
|Can I get an Amen?|
Sign at Preston Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County
There's been a ton written about this, but the short version is it came from an obscure grape in Croatia, then to southern Italy, then to New England, and in the mid-19th century to California where it's thrived. The Italian clone of Zinfandel is called Primitivo.
The White Zinfandel phenomena
White Zin was "discovered" in the 1970s and really flourished in the 1980s as a casual, easy-to-drink summer wine. There are still millions of cases of it made every year with the vast majority of Zinfandel grapes going into making White Zin.
This is all I'll talk about the sweet, pink stuff. This article is about the original zin (like that play on words?) meaning the red stuff.
There are a lot of different fruit flavors that can be found in Zinfandel. Everything from boysenberry and blackberry to the red fruits of cherry and cranberry to plums and prunes. Often the wine is described as jammy or maybe even overripe. What's considered good plum flavors can turn to not so nice pruney. You can get a spicy or black pepper flavor adding a bit of extra complexity.
Over the last 20 years the alcohol levels have risen and so has the wine's popularity. Zins of 15% alcohol or more give a bolder, more jammy fruit flavor and make for a softer (lower acid) wine.
It's a hardy vine with grape clusters that tend to ripen unevenly. This gives the wine some interesting characteristics like higher acid levels from unripe grapes to pruney flavors from overripe fruit -- all in the same cluster.
There's an estimated 70,000 acres of Zinfandel/Primitivo planted worldwide with 48,000 of that in California. About 26,000 acres of California's is in the Central Valley where most of that goes into inexpensive table wines and white zinfandel (with the Lodi area being a notable exception).
It grows almost anywhere in California except the coolest, coastal or mountainous areas. Outside of the Central Valley growing region Sonoma County grows the most with San Luis Obispo (Paso Robles) and Amador Counties following. Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley is arguably the ancestral home of Zinfandel.
Old Vine Zinfandel
|Pagani Ranch, Sonoma Valley|
Zinfandel from the turn of the 20th century
This is where Zinfandel is really unique. Sonoma and Amador Counties especially are home to some very old Zin vines. There is no legal definition for old vines, but generally most say over 50 years old. Sonoma County is home to a lot of vines from the pre-Prohibition days. These heritage vines, as sometimes called, are treasured.
How is old vine Zin different? They are head-pruned rather than trellised vines. They don't produce much fruit per vine (as vines age they produce less fruit). Fewer clusters per vine means more intense fruit flavors. Fewer clusters usually means higher prices, too. You get dark, rich, intense flavors, and sometimes more pruney and higher alcohol.
Number one is to watch those alcohol levels. The big fruit bombs with 15% alcohol are meant to be drunk right away and with rich, maybe slightly sweet sauces on your food or as a cocktail wine without food. The ones under 14.5% will be best for most foods (this is a generalization, there are always exceptions). Prime areas for Zin are Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile (in Sonoma County) and in Amador County over in the Sierra Foothills. Zins from places like Lodi and Paso Robles will be of the softer, usually higher alcohol style. From Russian River Valley will be bright and more acidic and food-friendly. Sonoma Valley falls in between. (More generalizations). Napa is all over the board.
This gets complicated as I've seen them go downhill within a year if they're made in the higher alcohol, jammy style. The lower alcohol, more structured wine can easily go five or ten years, but generally you don't want to go past five. I've occasionally had them older and they were still great wines, but these are the exceptions.
Think meat. Think heavy red sauce. Either of those will produce a winner. Italian food like spaghetti, lasagne, or pizza, and grilled meats such as sausage or pork ribs are great. Even if you're grilling a lighter meat like pork loin or chicken and using a rich, spicy BBQ sauce then Zin is your wine. Meals with curry, garlic, or lots of pepper usually work.
California has given the world gold, Hollywood, the Beach Boys, and computers. Zinfandel should be on that list, too.
Want to read more about this wine? A guide from the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers.