What is Zinfandel Wine?
Zinfandel has a somewhat muddled story. The varietal, which came across as an immigrant grape to America in the mid-1800s, heading west with travellers and establishing itself as a commonly grown wine grape in California, has a reputation as being a rather – if not excessively – big, rich red wine. This is sometimes the case, but many winemakers have sorted out how to make this varietal shine as a wonderfully lush, full wine.
For a long time, the origins of Zinfandel were unknown. In more recent years, this has come to light. In understanding the history and social circumstances associated with the varietal, we can better appreciate understand this wine, and know what to look for when grabbing bottle.
Zinfandel is a black-skinned grape, very dark in colour, which grows in tight bunches and ripens to a very high sugar content
- As mentioned, Zinfandel came to the eastern shores of America in the mid-19th century with immigrants from Europe, but the true origins of the varietal weren’t clear until the late 90s, when DNA revealed the grape was identical to Italy’s Primitivo varietal, ultimately connecting both to the original Croatian parent grape, Crljenak Kaštelanski
- When Cabernet Sauvignon become the dominant, trending wine in the mid-20th century America, traditionalists (Old World wine drinkers) looked down on Zinfandel, claiming that the mass-produced, big wine couldn’t produce a fine wine like the French alternative
- In the 1970s, when this reputation was pretty widespread, ‘White Zinfandel’ went into production – White Zinfandel uses the same grape, but extracts the juice from the skins as quickly as possible to produce a sort of semi-sweet rosé, pale pink in colour and high in alcohol content; the initial production of this wine was a mistake, but when the bottle went to market anyway and flew off the shelves, White Zin became a thing in America – it is still around, though you can imagine it doesn’t do justice to what this varietal can actually become in a red wine
Most Zinfandel comes out of northern California, including the Central Valley’s Lodi region
- That brings us to the Zinfandel grapes themselves – they are very dark, black-skinned grapes that have high sugar content, thus the high ABV (sometimes near the 15% mark) – in other worlds, Zinfandel produces big wines
- The robust wine ranges in berry fruit, from raspberry and strawberry to blackberry and bramble, often with pepper and spice (anise, clove, cinnamon) and high acidity; if aged in oak, the spice profile is even more exaggerated
- A key in choosing Zin is to look at your ABV – the higher the alcoholic content, the richer, riper, sweeter and jammier the wine will be; on the lower end (relatively), you can get something still full and lush yet delicate and balanced
- California is still mainly where Zinfandel is grown and produced; the grape thrives in warm climates and is fairly easy to grow, though it does so unevenly, meaning some grapes might be rotting while others are not yet ready to pick – in other words, winemaking with Zin is not as brainless as the aforementioned traditionalists once deemed
- Higher elevation Zinfandel is still rich, but quite savoury and well-balanced; production is dominant in the Sierra Foothills, Central Valley, Napa Valley and Sonoma, with some production further south in LA county; flatter and more southern regions tend to yield fuller wines
- If you’re new to Zin, start exploring those from Sonoma (Dry Creek and Russian River) and the Central Valley (Lodi), working your way up to the Napa Valley, where you get a bit more acidity, tannins and aroma… these wines can stand up to a bit of age
- If you like Sangiovese or Grenache, you may well be into Zin. Go for the lower alcohol Zinfandels, and give them a bit bit of chill before drinking
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