Oh Zinfandel… America’s sweetheart grape. This juicy red is up there with Cabernet Sauvignon for putting California on the world wine map. Although Zinfandel doesn’t quite match up to the mighty Cab. Yet it can be just as interesting and unique when made with the right touch. This juicy little grape is surprisingly delightful and intense in its youth. Then, Zin becomes deliciously savory and complex with age.
As fate would have it, I tasted a Frog’s Leap Zinfandel from 1985(older than me) at a wine lunch I attended on the property years ago. I was still a junior sommelier at this time. Nonetheless, that wine impressed itself forever in my mind. The nose was beautiful and reminiscent of dried fruits like cranberry, raspberry, and fig with just a hint of pomegranate. Plus, a touch of cedar, baked earth and dried red flowers add to the wine’s complexity. On the palate the wine was savory and spicy with flavors of white pepper, smoked meat, dried black fruit, strawberry, sandalwood and turned earth. This wine was mind blowing. By far the most complex and expressive Zinfandel I have ever tasted.
Zinfandel is fascinating and versatile, despite the association with White Zin and fabulous boxed rose. Moreover, it’s not just an easy-drinking porch pounder. Zin produces every wine style, including red, white, rosé, and sweet wines. When made as a red wine, the style varies greatly depending on where the grape comes from and the winemaker’s influence. When grown in the Central Valley of California, Zin takes on a powerful, boozy, rich structure but when from the slopes of mountain districts in Napa it becomes delicate, floral and playful.
Deciding when to harvest the grape is also key in determining the flavor. This is when the winemaking decisions come into play. Zinfandel is often described as jammy or as having mixed berry flavors because the grapes themselves ripen inconsistently.
What does this ACTUALLY mean? On each individual bunch of Zinfandel grapes there will be a range of ripeness in the fruit. In other words, there will be a mixture grape maturity, from tiny green berries to big red overripe berries. So, Zinfandel has an underripe style with bright red fruit and high acidity when the grapes are picked early. Or the wine is a dense, spicy, voluptuous, black-fruited, earth bomb when the fruit is allowed to ripen fully.
Even though California Zinfandel has reached international acclaim this grape is not a Hella-Nor-Cal native. The Zinfandel grape was brought over from Europe in the 1800’s although by whom, is not entirely clear. Many sources credit the flamboyant-self-titled “Count” Agoston Harazthy with the dirty deed of smuggling the first Zin vines to the states. Although the Count famously created the eponymous Buena Vista Winery, many of his other “deeds” (and likely a significant part of his life story) were highly exaggerated, so the truth may never be known. What IS known is that Zinfandel is genetically identical to the Italian Primitivo grape AND Crljenak Kastelanski, a grape of Croatian origin. Try saying that three times fast.
Favorite Producers & Regions
My FAVORITE expression of Zinfandel comes from Andis Winery. Andis is one of the few lucky producers who make their wine from some of the oldest vines in the world; the Old Grandpere Vineyard in the Mokelumne River AVA of the Sierra Foothills. The vines were planted in 1869 and are gnarled and striking to behold. There are many other amazing producers all around California; Frog’s Leap and Storybook Mountain in Napa and Ancient Peaks in Santa Margarita Ranch top my list.
So what do you pair with Zinfandel?
IT DEPENDS ON WHAT ZIN! Again, you can find a million different styles of Zinfandel; it really depends on what you want. Let’s break it down style by style:
Sparkling Zin: Pair with deep fried and or spicy foods.
White/Rose Zin: This can go well by itself, or paired with light summer fare like crudite, salad, roast chicken and fish. Believe it or not—- some good White Zin’s do exist. Try Turley’s White Zin for a taste of CLASSY non-boxed Rose.
Red Zin: Say it with me — BBQ. Yeah it’s a classic for a reason. That spicy acidic boozy Zin will clean your mouth after every fatty, saucy bite. If you are drinking a lighter style of Zinfandel, try this with pork loin, waygu beef and duck! Of course you can always do charcuterie, blue cheese and (for my vegetarian friends) roast mushrooms as well. Red Zin holds also shows well with dishes such as pumpkin curry.. Yum.
Sweet or Fortified Zin: Chocolate cake or chocolate anything is a winner. Favorite desert I have EVER tried with a late harvest Zinfandel wine — Chocolate lava cake with fresh raspberries and candied maple walnuts. My mouth is already watering… Jesus.
Thank god for Zinfandel advice just in time for 4th of July. Drink well friends!