“Z” is for Zinfandel

Zinfandel or ‘Zin’ to its friends is a grape which is seen very much as an American variety.  The French have Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon (and many many more!) with Zinfandel proudly wearing the stars and stripes of America.

But the hard truth of the matter is the grape isn’t American at all!

DNA has proven that Zinfandel is in fact the same variety as Italy’s Primitivo and the rare ancient variety Crljenak Kastelanski (from Croatia).

A quick history

The grape appears to have arrived in the US in the 1820s from a collection of vines brought over from Vienna, having found it’s way to Austria from Croatia.  Similarly, there are reports in the 18th century from Puglia (in Italy) of a grape called Primitivo arriving from…yes you have guessed it….Croatia.

So this journeyman grape appears to have travelled across Europe before eventually arriving in America where California has very much taken it to its heart.

Why California?  A lot is to do with the California gold rush of the late 1840s/early 1850s.  The influx of people to California required supplies (much of which came from the east coast), and one such shipment was plant material among which was vines for a grape known then as ‘Zinfindal’. Thriving in the warm Mediterranean climate of California, it proved to be an abundant and reliable supplier of fruit.

Did you know? During Prohibition, Zinfandel was the grape of choice for home bootleg winemakers!

About the grape

A prodigious grower, the thin skins are prone to rot in damp conditions so it performs at its best in warm, dry conditions. A fascinating thing about this grape is that it ripens really unevenly.  What this means is that within the same bunch you can have grapes which are still green (unripe), fully ripe, and even raisined (over ripe and shrivelled).  The result is wines that can have a really wide range of flavour/aroma characteristics, but more on that later.

‘Zin’ is a sun worshipper – whereas too much heat can be a problem for many grapes, not so ‘Zin’, the riper the better and as a result it is not unheard of for grapes to exceed 16.5% ABV (remember sugars turn to alcohol and ripeness equals more sugar).  With this comes the risk of over-baked, jammy wines that are hugely alcoholic and flabby.  To safeguard against this, winemakers look to hilly areas where hot days can be balanced by cooler nights.

Yes , undoubtedly ‘Zin’ can be big and it can be brash, but it can also be lovely in the right hands.

Producing a wide range of wine styles, it is at its best as a dry red wine, but can produce, sweet, port-like wines and is arguably more widely known for its white (or pink) iteration known as White Zinfandel.

To me this sickly sweet blush (rosé) wine was one to avoid, but I know many who enjoyed the sweet, easy drinking style and it proved commercially very popular particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

I will forgive White Zinfandel though, as without the commercial success it brought to the grape it is highly unlikely any of the old bush vines would remain.  Today California is home to many old bush vines (many well in excess of 50 years of age), now being used to produce deeply characterful red wines.

Flavour characteristics

Zinfandel is a bit of a chameleon in that it is capable of so many different flavour and aroma characteristics (remember my earlier comment about the different ripeness levels in a bunch of grapes?).

Generally though what you get with Zinfandel is high alcohol, fairly full bodied wines with lots of concentrated fruit and ripe tannins.  Acidity can be low, but with winemakers increasingly looking to pick early or grown in the hills where night-time temperatures are cooler the wine is able to retain acidity.

Many are aged in oak and usually American oak, which imparts smoky tobacco and sweet spice notes (think vanilla, clove, cinnamon).

Cooler growing conditions produce wines with a more red fruit profile (cranberry, raspberry, loganberry), with warmer conditions leaning more towards blackberry fruit and the tell tale raisin, prune and jammy fruit (so common in very ripe berries) with chocolate and cocoa notes.

Regions and producers to look for

Today Zinfandel remains firmly entrenched in California.  The benchlands of Lodi are a good place to look.  Historically seen as the bulk wine producing region, quality conscious winemakers are producing good quality Zinfandel here.  Best still, Sonoma’s Dry Creek and Russian River Valley are regions worth exploring.

Be careful to avoid the cheaper end of the spectrum with Zinfandel, these tend to be more mass produced with big alcohols and jammy fruit.

Producers I can recommend looking out for include:

Seghesio, De Loach, Ravenswood and Ridge Vineyards. You may pay a bit more but it is worth it.

So there we have it, the end of the A-Z of wines. I hope those of you that have taken the time to read these blogs have found them interesting. I’d love to have some feedback and please do let me know if there are any topics you are keen on learning more about for future posts. For now though, thanks for reading.

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