Next Saturday, my wine group is doing a Zinfandel (Zin) tasting! So my article next week will likely be on the wines we try. But this week I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore Zinfandel. I happened to look back at nearly 10 years of blog writing and saw that I’ve never written an article on this wonderful grape and wine. That blows my mind. Today’s the day!
Red vs. White Zinfandel
While White Zinfandel is a favorite among beginning wine drinkers, and according to Wine Folly, accounts for nearly 85% of all Zinfandel production (!),this article will be devoted to Red Zinfandel.
The Grape’s Origin
Even though Zinfandel is often thought of as a California grape, it actually originated in Croatia under the name Crljenak Kaštelanski. According to WineInstitute.org, “Historians believe that in the 1820s, a nursery owner brought Zinfandel cuttings that were Croatian in origin to the United States from an Austrian collection.”
I don’t think I’ve ever had a Zin from outside of California. Whenever I think of a California Zin, I think of three things:
- Over-ripe jam: blueberry, cherry, plum, boysenberry, cranberry
- Black pepper: a good complement to the sweetness of the jam
- Alcohol: Zin is one of the highest alcohol wines, especially in CA, where the grapes have a boatload of sugar, which turns into a boatload of alcohol
Vivino goes on to say that “While California Zinfandel can be produced in various styles, ranging from light to full-bodied, they all exhibit a certain fruit forwardness that is frequently described as ‘jammy’. It is also known for licorice, spicy and peppery notes.”
One other note: High elevation Zins tend to be more savory and rich.
- BBQ: Since Zin leans on the sweeter side of red wine, it pairs nicely with spiced barbecue dishes and curry.
- Spices: Because Zin has a lot of pepper notes, it’s fun to pair it with dishes that have a lot of pepper, like pepper-coated prime rib or black pepper monkfish. Also, per Wine Folly’s recommendations, try it with dishes that include these spices and herbs: Ginger, Garlic, Rosemary, Curry, Turmeric, Cayenne, Clove, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Vanilla, Cocoa, Coriander, Fennel, and Saffron.
- Cheeses: Try hard, richly flavored cow’s and sheep’s milk cheeses like Parmesan, Aged Cheddar, Aged Gouda, Manchego and Dry Jack.
- Vegetables: Since Zin has a fruity quality to it, it goes well with fruity vegetables like tomatoes (I know this is actually a fruit), red peppers, squash and carmelized onions.
- Fruits: Try Zin with apricots, peaches, cranberries and spiced apple.
Where Is Zinfandel Produced?
According to WineInstitute.com, “Zinfandel is the third-leading wine grape variety in California, with more than 44,400 acres planted and 416,615 tons crushed in 2016, according to the CaliforniaDepartment of Food and Agriculture. It is grown in 45 of California’s 58 counties.
According to WineMag.com, “The variety grows well wherever the climate is warm enough to ripen it, which is pretty much everywhere in California that’s not on the immediate coast. Yet, Zinfandel thrives in some regions more than others. In general, Zin shows two styles: one from warm, inland regions, the other from cool-to-warm regions where the vines experience some maritime influence. The former tends to be higher in alcohol, the latter a little more elegant.”
Does the grape grow outside of California? Yes. It grows in Italy under the name Puglia. I don’t think it grows in any other US states, but I could be wrong.
Who Makes the Best Zin?
Currently, the “best” Zins are coming from Napa Valley, Lodi, Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma and Russian River Valley in Sonoma.
Ending with a Great Article from the San Francisco Chronicle
Esther Mobley, the wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a wonderful piece on Zin that I highly recommend you read. Here’s one of my favorite lines: “In true American style, Zin has been known to get too rowdy: For many years, most of the California Zin on the market was either jammy and boozy, or semi-sweet and pink. Today, the picture couldn’t be more different. Quality-minded wineries are producing Zinfandels that rival the state’s best Cabernets regarding seriousness and ageability — and meanwhile express, somehow, the California frontier spirit better than that grape ever could.”
Cheers to enjoying Zinfandel!