Zinfandel has a colorful past. Even though it was long thought to be an indigenous American grape, sometimes dubbed “California’s own,” its origins are Croatian. Zinfandel’s origins were not known for certain until as late as the 1990s, when researchers at UC Davis and in Croatia worked closely to determine that Zinfandel is the same as a Croatian grape known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, and that at some point the grape crossed the Adriatic sea and arrived in the “heel” of Italy, to Puglia, where the grape is widely grown and known as Primitivo.
The grape first came to America in the early 19th century, by way of the Austrian Imperial Nursery, in Vienna. Zinfandel vines were likely imported to Long Island, where they were planted across the East Coast, before they migrated west to California during the gold rush in the 1850s. By 1859, Zinfandel was grown widely in both Napa and Sonoma, and during Prohibition, it became the choice grape for “home winemakers” and suffered from overplanting.
Zinfandel makes a range of wine, depending on where it’s planted. Generally speaking, there are two “styles” of Zinfandel – a ripe, plush version redolent of black plums, black figs, black cherries and spice – and a slightly lighter version that is still ripe and fruity, but whose flavors are those of ripe red plums, red cherries, and even ripe red peach. If grown in a warm and sunny climate, like California’s Central Valley, the grape gets so ripe that it can have an alcohol content as high as 16%. In most climates, except extremely hot ones, Zinfandel berries ripen unevenly in bunches. It is not uncommon for some berries to be fully ripe, while others in the same bunch are still green and harsh. This can result in wines that are simultaneously ripe, fruity, tart and tangy.
Vine Talk tasted:
•Carina Cellars, Zinfandel 2007 $32.00
•Peachy Canyon Winery, Especial Zinfandel 2007 $40.00
•J. Dusi Wines Zinfandel 2008 $32.00
•Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery Zinfandel 2007 $38.00
•Turley Wine Cellars, Pesenti Zinfandel 2007 $45.00
•Victor Hugo Winery Estate Zinfandel 2008 $22.00
If you like Zinfandel with the ripe, dark fruit and spice characteristics, try Zinfandel from the Dry Creek AVA, in Sonoma County. These wines are known for tasting of blackberry, anise, and pepper.
If you like a softer style of Zinfandel, try those from the Russian River Valley, where fog from the Russian River lingers and creates an environment of cool nights and mornings, lending freshness to the wines. The Santa Cruz Mountains are also famous for their complex, elegant styles of Zinfandel.
Also try – Primitivo, from Puglia, and Amarone, from the Veneto, in Italy. Primitivo is the same grape as Zinfandel and has grown in Puglia since the mid 19th Century. Historically, Primitivo was an important blending agent in Amarone, a wine from the Veneto region, in Northeast Italy, made from Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes that were picked and then dried on straw mats, before fermentation. Amarone has the richness and ripe, dark fruit of Zinfandel.
Since the late 1990’s, when research confirmed that Zinfandel sprung from the ancient Croatian vine Crljenak Kaštelanski, which still grows along the Dalmatian Coast, many Croatian producers are planting the vine again. There are now some excellent Crljenak Kaštelanski’s on the market!
For more information on the episode featuring Paso Robles Zinfandel, click: Episode Guide: Zeroing in on Zinfadels from California.
Photo of Zinfandel grapes by Christopher Taranto, courtesy of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance