We can all use a bit of warmth and comfort in these difficult and trying times. This bizarre newly imposed reality and the uncertainty of what is ahead is causing us anxiety and apprehension. The pandemic has turned our daily routines upside down, leading us to crave assurance and yearn for familiarity. We miss our friends and families and the intimacy they bring into our lives. We all concoct our own recipes for a semblance of normalcy, and sipping on the right glass of wine at the end of a confusing day can definitely be a part of that soothing formula.
Zinfandel has always been a grape of comfort for me. A charmingly non-committal, Zin is a boozy wine full of warmth, satisfying flavors and unpretentious personality. I am referring to California Zinfandel because, as you will find out, if you do not know it already, Zinfandel’s history and its journey is as colorful as a story of most immigrants chasing the American Dream whose validity in recent years has been greatly tested.
Because of its ubiquity and abundance in California, for decades, Zinfandel was considered the Golden State’s indigenous grape, and it was believed as such until the 1970s when slowly, it was revealed that we were dead wrong.
Zinfandel is one of the oldest grapes with evidence of its existence dating back to 6000 B.C.E. in the Caucasus. However, the grape’s beginnings in the U.S. were traced back to the 1820s, when clippings of its vines were shipped to Long Island from the Austrian Imperial nursery in Vienna. It quickly became a popular grape in the Northeastern U.S, where it was a nursery owner from Massachusetts, Frederick Macondray, who was credited with transporting Zin vines to California around 1850. There, it flourished in the loving, warm climate. Zinfandel wine became one of the favorite libations for gold seekers during the Gold Rush, and its resilient constitution carried it through an outbreak and devastation of phylloxera in the late 1800s and the draconian laws of prohibition of the early 1900s. It became the most planted Vitis vinifera grape in California until the mid-20th century when it slowly relinquished its supremacy to Cabernet Sauvignon.
In the early 1990s, UC Davis’s Enology department started conducting DNA testing on grapevines. First, they traced Zinfandel to a little known, obscure Italian grape variety from Puglia named Primitivo. Just when the mystery of Zinfandel seemed to be solved, another breakthrough came to light. Further tests performed by Professor Carole Meredith undeniably proved Croatia to be the true cradle of Zinfandel. In the Balkans, it was known by the name Crljenak Kaštelanski.
One of the fascinating aspects of winemaking is that the same grape variety grown in different microclimates results in wines of varying structure and aromatics. The same is true for Zinfandel, I have tasted it numerous times side by side, and comparatively, all three renditions of the grape: Croatian Crljenak Kastelanski, Italian Primitivo and California Zinfandel have tasted vastly different. The Croatian version was of light body with a mix of fruity, herbal and savory flavors followed by firm tannins and high acid. Primitivo was bold and dense, with a deep color and concentration, and darker fruit aromas with a distinct peppery finish. Both Primitivo and CK came with a very moderate alcohol level. California Zinfandel was lush and jammy. Its silky mouthfeel on the palate offered little tannin grip. You could feel the warm sensation of high alcohol, but it was well balanced by its dense fruitiness. But to say that California Zinfandel is uniform in its character would be incorrect. The grape is grown in nearly all wine regions of the state, and each region produces its own individual style.
Zinfandel does not carry a great esteem among wine “professionals” and “connoisseurs”. That is maybe why I don’t have many friends in the industry—just kidding! It’s slighted and looked down upon as plebeian, a simplistic wine lacking in finesse and complexity. Like with any other grapes though, it isn’t the type of grape that dictates the quality of the wine but rather the quality of the fruit and the winemaking techniques. Zinfandel is a “sweet” grape with a high sugar content resulting in a high alcohol level found offensive by some wine “aficionados”. The grape is low in phenolics, chemical compounds that are mainly responsible for tannins in red wines rendering Zinfandel to taste, in some people’s opinion, too fruity and flabby. Its reputation was also tarnished by some bulk produced, poor quality bottlings of the wine as well as the days of “blush” Zinfandel. Invented by Sutter Home winery in the early 1970s, rosé of Zinfandel exploded on the market and quickly became a staple drink of the American housewives and beyond. The wine which comes in semi-sweet to sweet version still exists, but fortunately, its heydays are over. Have I tasted it? Yes! It’s horrific.
What about the frequently encountered concept of Old Vine Zinfandel? The term “old vine” is rather murky and ambiguous. In California, there is no wine law or regulation determining how old the vines have to be for the wine to be labeled Old Vine. Regardless, Zinfandel vines can live and produce fruit for many decades. There are examples of over 100-year-old Zinfandel vines in California with trunks two feet in diameter. Is there an advantage to making wine from old vine grapes? Yes, the older the vine, the fewer grape clusters it produces and the smaller the berries it yields. Thus, old vines are considered inefficient. But the concentration and the complexity of flavors in the grapes increases dramatically the longer the vine lives, transferring these attributes to the wine.
In my world, different wines serve different roles, fulfill different needs and fit a variety of occasions. Good Zinfandel is a versatile wine that comes with a great story. Its versatility applies not only to food and wine pairings, but also to its flexible social adaptability. It is a snobbery eliminator; do not trust a person who snubs a good Zin. For me, Zinfandel has proven itself to be a unifying wine, which with its heartwarming personality, transcends wine pretense, superficiality and brings closer together those who in social gatherings seek what is important in life; pure and unadulterated joy. And that is something that we can use a lot of these days. Zin up, my friends!
My favorite California Zinfandel producers.
Roberts Biale (especially their “Black Chicken” bottling.)
Storybook Vineyards (these are serious Zinfandels with worldwide recognition.)
Turley (a wide range of different cuvees from numerous California wine regions.)