Who in the Hell Drinks Zinfandel?

Lots of passionate aficionados, that’s who! The California Rebel Wine (often referred to as Zin) is not a casual affair for most of its lovers; it is a passionate and addictive love. ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) is the umbrella organization for these wine weirdos. For a flavor of what this wine cabal is about, I quote their website:

“Who We Are! Zinfandel — America’s Heritage Wine

Old Zinfandel Vine in Sonoma, CA

The Association of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) was founded almost twenty years ago—back in the day—when Zinfandel was the underdog with a cause. A small group of passionate wine pioneers and Zinfandel-loving enthusiasts came together because they believed that Zinfandel deserved recognition as a highly respected varietal that could compete with the finest wines around the world. Today, ZAP comprises hundreds of producer members and thousands of advocates. Zinfandel has now come to be recognized and respected internationally as a world-class red wine that tells a wonderful American story.”

I mentioned a couple of rambles back that varietal naming of wines in the US was an interesting story about differentiation creating a marketing niche.  Well, California managed to make a lot of varietals more interesting market items than their European blended cousins, but none has become more uniquely identified with CA than Zinfandel, which occupies about 10% of all CA vineyard acres.

DNA analysis at the Foundation Plant Services has shown that Zinfandel grape is nearly identical to Crljenak Kaštelanski from Croatia, and may have come to Long Island greenhouses about 1820 from the Austrian Imperial Nursery and subsequently to California on Clipper ships during the 1850’s gold rush, where it found its true American home. It is also almost identical to Primitivo, which apparently was Crljenak Kaštelanski taken from Croatia to the Apulia region of Italy in the 1700’s. There are several theories about the origin of the name Zinfandel, but suffice it to say that the name was common in California by the 1860’s and was recognized as an excellent winemaking variety by the 1870’s. Zinfandel now is almost exclusively identified with California, and the ZAP cabal calls it “America’s grape” (Actually there are now true “American” wine grapes hybridized from native Vitis species and the European Vitis vinifera species, but that is the subject for a future ramble).

What is Zinfandel wine like? It depends on the climate it resides in; hot areas produce a wine with less complexity that is often made into White Zinfandel wines. Somewhat cooler areas produce an intensely fruited, spicy and complex heavy red wine. Generally the older the Zinfandel vine, the more highly regarded the fruit, thus the genre of pricey wines that fall under the heading of Old Vine Zinfandel.

Zinfandel is regarded as a good food wine, but heavier red Zinfandels are especially good with intense food flavors, like barbecue pork, pit-roasted leg of lamb, lasagna, and lentils. Red Zinfandels are not for the faint of heart, as they can be very intensely flavored and tannic. However, much of that intensity is in the rich fruit flavors, especially berry flavors, and it balances out the tannins nicely. Zinfandel is good both young and aged and some older Zins can be marvelously complex.

My favorite Zins come from Amador, Santa Cruz Mountains, Dry Creek Valley, Paso Robles, Napa Valley and Mendocino areas, and each one has wonderful differences, so I urge you to try them all. Better yet, take a trip to northern California wine country and learn about these wines at the many small farm wineries. Pick an AVA to explore, take a week, stay at a local bed and breakfast, and eat at local restaurants that pair wine with food. Below are three red Zinfandels to try before you go.

My Wine Picks:

2007 Lytton Springs Vineyard Zinfandel, Ridge Winery

(higher price, excellent quality, tasted 2010)

Winemaker Tasting Notes: Appealing briar/bramble aromas. Clay, earth, mineral, sweet toasty oak, crushed pepper. Rich tannins, solid structure; Intense blackberry fruit, exotic spice. Long, complex finish. Classic Lytton Springs. EB (7/09)

2008 Rockpile Zinfandel, Seghesio Family Vineyards

(higher price, excellent quality, tasted 2010)

Winery Description: With our family’s first planting of Zinfandel in Sonoma County in 1895, we began to seek out vineyards which showcase Sonoma as the worlds premier appellation for zinfandel. Rockpile, a narrow ridge some 1200 feet above Dry Creek Valley, is just one of those areas. Steep, well-drained hillsides with shallow, rocky topsoil provide for less vigorous vines, smaller berries and intensely flavored zinfandel.

2008 Old Vine Zinfandel, Bogle Vineyards

(cheaper price, excellent quality, tasted 2010)

WINEMAKER NOTES: Head-trained and dry farmed vines continue to be the source for Bogle’s Old Vine Zinfandel. These gnarly old vines produce concentrated fruit of unsurpassed quality and intensity. This full-bodied vintage shows itself with rich black raspberry notes that round out in the mouth, accompanied by the scents of summer fruit jam bubbling on the stove. Juniper berry and cinnamon stick join the spiciness of red and black peppercorns as they integrate with the supple fruit and lead toward the finish. Toasty oak and cloves are the perfect finishing touch.


Dr. Menke is the Associate Professor of Enology; Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Colorado State University.

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