The Zinfandel variety is California’s flagship grape, like Sangiovese is to Italy and Malbec to Argentina. The grape makes bold wines with fruit flavors that, at their best, can be among the most diverse and fabulous in the world.
Zinfandel, as a grape, is extremely old. It probably originated in Caucasus in around 6000 B.C., and it was one of the first grapes to be made into wine when the winemaking process was discovered. However, there is not much known about wine history at this point. Croatia allegedly started the vinification of Zinfandel, but it did not show up in Italy, where it was named Primitivo, until the 1870s. In the meantime, the grape had arrived in the United States via a Long Island horticulturist in the 1820s. It started out as a table grape, and had achieved popularity by the 1830s, which continued for almost a century. The onset of Prohibition, however, saw the destruction of many of the old vines that are now so prized for growth of fine Zinfandel. This was a devastating blow to the wine industry, and Zinfandel went back to being a little-known table grape until the 1970s.
That’s when it got interesting: Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery created a dry French-style white wine that he called White Zinfandel. This was due to an increase in popularity of white wine versus red wine, an instance where many producers tried to maximize sales by converting red grapes to white wine. He sold 220 cases, but the real breakthrough didn’t come until 1975, when a “stuck fermentation” killed all the yeast, causing the sugar to not turn to alcohol. Trinchero tasted the now-sweet wine and found it to be good. White Zinfandel became immensely popular as a sweet rosé wine, and it still makes up for 10% of wine sales in the U.S., six times as much as red Zinfandel. White Zinfandel is generally considered an unappealing wine by the most discriminating drinkers, but it nonetheless helped to contribute to a repopulation of Zinfandel vines. By the end of the 20th century, red Zinfandel had come into fashion again, and the vines were available for that usage.
The great red Zinfandel is always made in climates that are warm but not too hot, as in hot weather the grapes may shrivel. A curious thing happens when grapes ripen: some of them become overripe, while others are not yet ripe enough. Most of the expensive Zinfandel wineries hand-pick the grapes by single berries, a hugely laborious process that sends prices sky-high but correspondingly increases quality.
Zinfandel is given high repute in California, especially certain regions. The Santa Cruz Mountains, San Luis Obispo, Mendocino, and especially Lodi are known for their Zinfandel. In Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley AVA’s diverse Zinfandels can range from a high-alcohol style to a spicy, balanced wine. California Zinfandel can be surprisingly affordable, although boutique examples also exist.
Zinfandel is grown other places in the US, including New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Just as in California, they make wines ranging from sweet whites to rosé to fortified Port-style wine to big, hearty, California-style reds. In the south of Italy, especially Puglia, Primitivo is a popular grape. Usually stronger than American Zinfandel, unfortified Primitivo can contain up to 16% alcohol. However, the popularity of Zinfandel in the US has caused some winemakers to imitate California Zinfandels by aging them in new oak, which eliminates their distinctiveness.
In conclusion, another thing to remember about Zinfandel is though it can age, the fruity yet strong flavors are best enjoyed young. Few other wines in the world share this distinction.
Zinfandel is truly California’s own great red grape. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world is hooked on California Zinfandel.