Zinfandel, a California icon and often called ‘America’s Grape’, has been grown in the USA since the early 19th century; but it isn’t American. Italians will tell you that Zinfandel originated in the Apulia region and is identical to Primitivo. They’ll say because Primitivo has been grown in Italy since the early 18th century, it’s actually an Italian grape. Wrong again. Zinfandel’s origins were hotly disputed for more than 30 years, but after debates, disputes and what I can only imagine as immense amounts of gesticulating between the representative of all three countries, researchers and a scientist from UC Davis finally proved its history and lineage through DNA analysis. Sorry USA and Italy… although your varietals are genetically alike and related, they’re not identical and it’s been proven that true Zinfandel originated in the Dalmatian county of Croatia. There, it’s known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or sometimes Pribidrag, or sometimes Tribidrag… regardless, the varietal is almost extinct in its homeland.
Zinfandel’s confusing identity doesn’t end there. Although known to some as White Zinfandel – that pale pink, light and sweet summer-time wine we sometimes call ‘blush’ – it’s best known when crafted in all its intense, spicy, plummy, deep garnet glory.
It’s believed that Zinfandel was imported into the US sometime in the 1820s, where it established itself in California’s Napa and Sonoma Counties. Today, some of the highest quality examples of Zinfandel in the world can be found there.
Zinfandel, known as Primitivo in Italy, has been grown and harvested mostly in the heel of the boot area, known as the Apulia (Puglia) peninsula, for the last 200 years. Other than Italy and its neighbour to the east, Croatia, these two Adriatic countries are the only areas of note producing decent examples of Zin in the Old World.
Other than California in the New World, the western areas and southern part of Australia, specifically McLaren Vale, produce wines that have been enthusiastically recognized in several international competitions. Small production wineries in the USA, specifically in Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas are producing surprisingly good expressions. Zinfandel is grown elsewhere in small batches around the world, even in Mexico, but few areas yield examples that are as noteworthy as those expressly mentioned.
Alas though, Zinfandel in the bottle is only as good as the choices made by the winemaker in the vineyard, and the efforts expended by him/her in the winery.
As you walk the shelves of your local wine store you’ll note Zinfandel in many forms: as a cheap, blush wine, as a reasonably priced less-than-humble quaffer and as a serious, usually pricey, high alcohol, fruit bomb-style wine. With this in mind, to say it is a versatile varietal would be an understatement, however, after browsing row upon row of low end Zinfandels on the shelf, some hesitant consumers skip the serious, carefully crafted, French-oak examples that have been given the winemaker’s full attention – from the old vine all the way to the bottle – and opt instead for some other red. It should come as no surprise then that Zinfandel’s finest examples from Napa and the AVAs of Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley have developed somewhat of a cultish and obsessive following.
Zinfandel’s versatility works against beginner wine tasters, especially during a blind tasting. There are some individual varietal aromas but its Zinfandel’s trademark deep, dark ruby hue on appearance which serves as the ultimate tip-off.
On the nose, intense dark fruits beg to be noticed: cherry, plum, raspberry, rhubarb and other wild berries slowly transition to black tea, vanilla, coconut, cedar or sometimes pencil shavings resulting from aging in oak barrels.
On the palate, the heat of the high alcohol and its full body are what usually slaps a taster in the face first. Then, intense red fruits intermingle with black or red pepper, cinnamon, wild berries – all the while balanced in both acidity and tannin – concluding in a long, lingering finish.
It’s no wonder then that Zinfandel pairs well with grilled, red meats, well flavoured spicy dishes, like BBQ ribs and most tomato based Italian dishes. Surprisingly, it also pairs magnificently with a turkey dinner, and is always the first varietal we run out of on Thanksgiving!