For more than a century, Zinfandel
was somewhat of a mystery grape, as far as
its origin was concerned. Research in Croatia and
at the University of California at Davis, using DNA profiling,
proved Zinfandel is a clone of the Croatian variety Crljenak Kaštelanski, also known by its less popular but more historical name Tribidrag.
While it had been theorized that Zinfandel's genetic twin,
the Italian Primitivo, was the source, this grape also
originally mutated from Tribidrag. Further research
may indicate the very first cuttings of Zinfandel migrated to America by way of Albania
In April, 2002, the TTB
announced they are considering ruling Zinfandel and Primitivo
synonymous for use on wine labels. Producers of California
Zinfandel will probably object, anticipating that Italian
producers with a bountiful supply would then be able to undercut
the market with inexpensive Primitivo wine labeled "Zinfandel".
Zinfandel came to the United
States c. 1829, when New York nurseryman George Gibbs carried
back various cuttings from the Imperial Austrian plant species
collection. Over the next two decades, Zinfandel became a
popular table grape in the Northeast U.S. Although his son claimed that Agoston Harazsthy brought Zinfandel
to California and mounted a large and largely successful publicity campaign that included falsified documents in order to prove it, records show that Massachusetts nurseryman Frederick Macondray1
introduced zinfandel to California c. 1852. Regardless, Zinfandel is now considered
virtually indigenous to California, where it has thrived since the mid-1850's. Its popularity peaked during the final two decades of the 19th century, when it was the most widely-planted grape in the state. Zinfandel remains today one of California's most popular and prolific grape varieties.
Nearly as versatile as chardonnay
in the number of different styles of wine produced from it,
zinfandel only achieved widespread popularity in America, starting about
1980, as a pink, slightly sweet wine. In fact, this popularity
so outstripped all other forms, that many fans think that
there is actually a grape called "White Zinfandel" (there
Zinfandel as a red wine can
be made light and fruity, much like French Beaujolais,
or lively, complex and age worthy, like Cabernet or claret.
It can also be made into big, ripe, high alcohol style wines
that resemble Port. Zinfandel is also a component of
most California "jug" wines, since it is the most widely planted
red wine grape in the Central Valley.
This vineyard proliferation
can be attributed to zinfandel's hardy nature. Adaptable to
a wide range of soils and climates, its vines tend to be vigorous
and productive. Zinfandel also has a frequent tendency to
set a second crop.
The clusters are compact and
full and the berry stems (peduncles) somewhat short.
These factors make Zinfandel somewhat susceptible to bunch
rot and some types of mildew. Water management is particularly
critical to raising Zinfandel. Under stress from lack of moisture,
it is prone to raisining. It also ripens more unevenly than
most other varieties and it is not uncommon for green and
raisined berries to occur within the same cluster. This tendency
to can be aggravated by poorly-timed irrigation. Uneven ripening
also means that machine-picking is impractical and a Zinfandel
vineyard may often require a few passes, days apart, to harvest
all the fruit with the same level of maturity.
Because of its vigor, generosity
and resistance to vine disease, many zinfandel vineyards exist
that are 75 to 100 or more years old. Zinfandel aficionados
believe these "old vines" produce the best wines, because
the older vineyards set smaller crops and the grapes tend
to ripen more evenly.
its best, Zinfandel (red) has a very fruity, raspberry-like
aroma and flavor and a "jammy" quality.
Zinfandel Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
depends upon individual tasting ability and experience
and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions,
as well as viticultural and enological techniques,
so this list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive,
Fruit: raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry, cranberry, black
Carbonic Maceration: tutti-frutti, candy, bubblegum
|Herbal: briar, licorice, nettle
Oak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood
Spice: cinnamon, black pepper
(heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar
Age: musk, mushroom, earth, leather cedar, cigar
Zinfandel is one red
varietal that is probably best enjoyed in its youth,
within three to five years of the vintage. With more
bottle age than this, the luscious fruit that distinguishes
Zinfandel drops markedly and the wine can show a pronounced
"hot" taste of higher alcohol levels and become more
neutrally vinous. It is sometimes hard even for
experienced tasters to pick an older Zinfandel from
among similar-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance
(not that there's anything wrong with that).
When paired with outdoor-grilled
steaks or chops or meat that has been stewed with or
stuffed with fruit, Zinfandel becomes a prime motivation
for people to become wine-lovers.
Advocates and Producers, better
known as ZAP, promotes Zinfandel Appreciation with educational
articles and links on their web site, including a Zinfandel-specific Aroma Wheel. They also sponsor and
conduct public tastings in selected cities throughout the wine world.
Piljac has written Zinfandel:
A Croatian-American Wine Story, chronicling her fascinating
and picturesque experiences as a key researcher and translator
for Dr. Carole Meredith in the search for the varietal's origins
in the author's ancestral homeland.
1. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998
2. Resource Guide to Zinfandel, (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers: Rough & Ready, CA) 2008
3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006
4. Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine, (Chronicle Books: San Francisco) 1996
5. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003
6. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996
7. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983
8. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010
9. Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator's: The Essentials Of Wine, (Wine Spectator Press: New York) 2000