Zinfandel is thought to be America’s grape. Recent years have found that Zinfandel does have a rich American history. In fact, it may be one of our tastiest immigrants! Is there anything more American than melting into a special place in our culture? Does it have an alias? Is Primitivo the same wine? With so much of a backstory is this wine more hype than flavor? Great questions! Let’s learn more about West Coast Zinfandel together.
Zinfandel’s Origin Story …
Whether the history of things that are a part of your everyday life is interesting to you or not, the history of this grape’s journey could be an interesting movie. Charles L. Sullivan captured this history that included a move to America’s West Coast with the mid 1800’s Gold Rush.
“It’s not easy to make the story of a grape exciting, but if there’sfrom Zinfandel: The History of a Grape and Its Wine by Charles L. Sullivan
a grape with an exciting story to tell, it’s Zinfandel. And if
there’s someone to tell it with both spunk and historical
accuracy, it’s Charles L. Sullivan. His latest book, Zinfandel,
reads like a mystery novel, complete with desperate characters
who throw detectives off track for years with lies, a murder,
dead-end tips, and a man supposedly eaten by a crocodile.
In the process Sullivan lays out the history of Zinfandel as
completely as is possible at this time and covers a whole lot
of the history of wine in the United States, too.
Perhaps, such a spicy story isn’t so surprising from such
a spicy, sassy grape. Whether a frisky little red, a sweet pinktinted quaff, a dense and Port-like after-dinner drink, or a
big, brooding, black-fruited dinnertime red, Zinfandel has
captured America’s heart like no other wine. Not even the
ever-popular Chardonnay can claim either its own extensive
fan club or yearly focused tastings in major us cities that
tend to create near-mob scenes, as Zinfandel can.
The “All-American” Grape?
Many have thought that if there was an “All American Grape,” it would be Zinfandel. However, VinPair shares a great three minute read on the origins of Zinfandel in Keith Beavers ‘ (@WineSkoolD) article – “Zinfandel, the All American Grape, Comes From a Place Called Kastela” written in 2015.
“Carole Meredith, a geneticist and professor at the University of California Davis, began using DNA profiling techniques to uncover the parentage of grape varieties. On the the Zinfandel front she and her team’s profiling established that the Plavac Mali grape from Croatia and an obscure grape called Dobričić, native to the Dalmatian island of Solta just off the coast of Spilt, were the parents of the California star. This was good news, but they still needed to find the actual grape’s birthplace. In 2001, the team discovered a grape that was all but extinct, still growing in a vineyard in one of the seven towns of Kaštela, not far from Spilt. The grape was known only by its local name, Crljenak Kaštelanski meaning the “red grape of Kaštela.” EUREKA! DNA profiling proved that this was in fact Zinfandel. And so the origin story of Zinfandel was complete.”from Keith Beavers’ article “Zinfandel, the All American Grape, Comes from a Place Called Kastela”
Many have argued both that Primitivo and Zinfandel are the same thing. Others have thought that they were distinctly different grapes creating distinctly different wines. So … which is it? Answer? Kind of both!
“Even some scientists working with the DNA results of Tribidrag, Primitivo and Zinfandel have found difficulty coming to a consensus. But while Primitivo and Zinfandel are very similar genetically, they are in fact ‘siblings’, if you will, deriving from the Croatian Tribidrag varietal. The wine styles of each can range immensely, and many can be extremely similar, which is why ‘Primitivo’ and ‘Zinfandel’ were considered synonyms for years and many still believe they are just too close in similarity to distinguish. “from What is the difference between Primitivo and Zinfandel? shared 11/27/2017 shared by Gold Medal Wine Club
While history is interesting … it doesn’t explain the qualities of the wine made from this interesting grape.
AVA & Flavor
Terroir, temperatures and climate have had many wine aficionados wax poetic describing the impact the these growing conditions have on the wine in their glasses. Zinfandel vividly reveals the impact of terroir or temperature to the taster. Warmer climates yield a raisin or blackberry flavors and cooler climates evoke strawberry or boysenberry notes.
In California, these grapes grow and become beautiful wines in several AVA’s. The northern hills of Napa and Sonoma are thought to be where it first flourished. Today, the coastal hills of Paso Robles boast lovely multi award winning bottles too. While there are exceptional established vineyards in Lodi and the foothills of the Sierra Mountains.
Quintessential Zinfandel Qualities
Growing these grapes can be challenging and requires careful vineyard tending. One reason is simply the bunches of grapes produced are of many different sizes. This characteristic can be challenging to harvest the grapes at the optimal time. As you can imagine, there are many different approaches to growing the grapes and also crafting wine from them. The International Wine Review has shared an extensive look into California’s Zinfandel online. Among the interesting tidbits in it, they discuss the three most common wines crafted with these grapes.
“Light and Medium-Bodied Zinfandels are fruit
forward and light to medium weight. The better-made
ones reveal ripe red and/or black fruit with flavors
of cherries, raspberries, blueberries, red plum, and
cranberries. They also show the spicy nature of the
varietal with hints of sweet oak, licorice and a persistent
Bold and Lush Zinfandels show intense fruit flavors
and ample tannins. They are rich and flavorful and
are often produced from vineyards with old vines. They
show intense red and black fruit, sometimes very ripe,
with flavors of blackberries, blueberries, and plum with
briary and sometimes creosote notes. They see a bit
more new oak, and it’s more likely to be French. Taken to
the extreme, these wines can show high alcohol and an
unctuous mouth feel.
from California Zinfandel : A New Look shared by The International Wine Review in May/June 2017
Old Vine Zinfandels are crafted from very old vines,
almost always 50+ years old and sometimes 100+, often
planted with other mixed black varieties in a field blend.
These vines have small berries and very low yields.
As a result, they have a firmer structure, complex and
often loamy/earthy in character with black cherry and
black raspberry fruit and possible notes of tobacco and
Commonalities among California’s true Zinfandels are that they are typically high alcohol content wines. The alcohol content is another quality that many speak of when discussing this varietal. Typically, 14-16% alcohol by volume is common. The resulting strong red wines pair beautifully with several different types of food. Many speak to how well it pairs with both your summer barbecues and your winter smoked meat feasts.
Food Pairing Listing for Zinfandels
There are so many things that Zinfandel pairs deliciously with! That makes stocking your wine cellar with this versatile varietal a winning choice.
Beef – Terrific with grilled steaks, kebabs or burgers
Pork – Rack of ribs, spicy skewers, Chinese styled spareribs, pork loin
Lamb – Raan/Roasted leg of lamb or a spicy lamb curry
Poultry – Grilled Chicken, Vietnamese Five Spice Hens,
Seafood – Lobster in Yellow Sauce or Singapore’s Pepper Crab
Cheeses – Cheddar, Gorgonzola, Gruyere, Feta, Havarti and many more.
These are a few of our favorite pairings and a few of the ones suggested in Patricia Guy & Edwin Soon’s tasty recipe book, Wine with Asian Food: New Frontiers in Taste. Their book is a feast for your eyes and it shares many delicious recipes to try with Zinfandel.
CKJY Exports Zinfandel Importing Recommendations –
From Napa AVA – While we know a few, we would like to recommend one from Brown Estate.
From Paso Robles AVA – One of our favorites comes from the team at Oso Libre.
From Lodi AVA – Worthy of mentioning is Solitary Cellars lovely Zinfandel
Cheers! Enjoy a glass of West Coast Zinfandel in this New Year!
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Born a Southern girl, I was transplanted a few times as a Navy wife! Now, our “retired” USN family, calls CA home. As UNC business school grad, I gained lots of useful insights by finding different opportunities and challenges along our military life’s path. Love of traveling, making friends, experiencing other cultures and sharing the best of all that with everyone are now all part of me.