ZINFANDEL “AMERICA’S GRAPE”
The red varietal Zinfandel is planted in over 10% of California’s vineyards. It produces a robust, fruit forward wine as well as a semi sweet red blush, White Zinfandel, that are both very popular in America. Although many writers in the late nineteenth and twentieth century liked to refer to it as “America’s grape”, it did not originate here.
After finding similarities between Zinfandel and Primitivo, an Italian varietal found in Puglia, Italy (located in ‘the heel of the boot’) the two grapes were found to be genetically identical in 1933. Further historical and genetic research led to the theory that both grapes were brought to their respective countries from, of all places, Croatia. Then in 2003, they were genetically proven to be an offspring of the grape known as Crljenak Kastelanski, a total of nine vines bearing this grape were found in a single vineyard in Kastel Novi, Croatia. The varietal was introduced from Hungary to the east coast of the US in 1829 where it was grown in hothouses and prized for its early ripening (hence Primitivo’s being named for the first grape to ripen). It was brought to California in the 1850s during the Gold Rush where it exploded in popularity, becoming the most widely planted grape in California.
During Prohibition, many of the vines were ripped up and replaced with Petite Sirah and Alicant Bouchet, which transported more easily for home winemaking. Zinfandel was largely forgotten, being used mainly for bulk fortified wines, but some producers with very old vines wanted to keep the varietal alive.
One such producer was Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home who, in 1972, decided to make a rose of Zinfandel and sell it under the name of Oeil de Perdix. He legally was required to change the name to White Zinfandel. In 1975, he experienced a stuck fermentation. This occurs when the yeast dies before the sugar is completely converted to alcohol, resulting in lower alcohol content and a somewhat sweet wine. He sold it anyway and it was an instant hit that made him a wealthy man. Modern day White Zinfandel is still a very popular wine. The popularity of the wine also saved many of the old vines from being ripped up in premium growing areas until red Zinfandel came back into fashion.
Zinfandel vines are vigorous and do best in warm but not hot climates. If the climate is too hot the grapes ripen too quickly and become overripe with a raisin like quality. Also, the high sugar level results in wines that can have a higher potential alcohol level. High alcohol can result in a “heat” to the wine. Many Zinfandels can reach alcohol levels of over 16%.
The big fruit flavors make Zinfandel an ideal barbeque wine and it is easy drinking on its own. It goes very well with glazed ham at Easter and even works with chocolate desserts.
Zinfandels can express slightly different flavor profiles depending on where they are from:
Lodi: This is a very warm region so the grapes ripen well and produce a lot of sugar that can result in some fairly high alcohol during fermentation. Also, this area has many old vines resulting in even more concentration of flavor. There can be a tendency toward overripeness, but this region is still the most popular source of Zinfandel. Wines from here include Oak Ridge OZV, The Zin, Earthquake, 7 Deadly Zins, and Predator.
Dry Creek: These Zinfandels are among the most elegant with bright red and black fruit flavors intertwined with pepper and earth. They are a bit lighter in body and well balanced between fruit and acidity. Good examples from here are Dashe, Alexander Valley Vineyards Redemption, and Frei Brothers.
Napa Valley: The terroir here produces more Cabernet-like Zinfandels, with red fruits, cedar, and vanilla flavors. Storybook Mountain is awesome but pricey. Other good ones are made by Frog’s Leap, Grgich, and Neal.
Many Zinfandels will be designated “Sonoma County” with grapes sourced from all over Sonoma, thus blending the characteristics of Dry Creek, Russian River, and other areas. Seghesio makes a great one and other good ones are St. Francis, Rodney Strong, and Kunde.
If you like big, full bodied, flavorful wines you have to try Zinfandel. Although it can’t correctly be called “America’s Grape” you can see why it’s known as one of America’s most popular.