ZInfandel: A Tale of Ire and Spice | Palate Club

ZInfandel — A Tale of Ire and Spice

Zinfandel grapes

Zinfandel America’s Sweetheart

Zinfandel is up there with Cabernet Sauvignon for putting California on the world wine map. Although Zinfandel doesn’t equal the mighty Cab Sav in average bottle price it can be equally as interesting and unique when made with the right touch.  This juicy little grape can be surprisingly delightful and intense in it’s youth and deliciously savory and complex with age.

I was privileged enough to try a Frog’s Leap Zinfandel from 1985(older than me) at a wine lunch I attended on the property some years back. I was still a junior sommelier at this time, but that wine is forever impressed in my mind.  The nose was beautiful and reminiscent of dried fruits; cranberry, raspberry, fig with just a hint of pomegranate, a touch of cedar, baked earth and dried red flowers. 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 and by far the most complex and expressive Zinfandel I have ever tasted.

Tasting back vintage zinfadel with John Williams at Frog's Leap
Tasting back vintage zinfadel with John Williams at Frog’s Leap

Interesting Facts

While often associated with “White Zin” and fabulous boxed rose, Zinfandel is fascinating and versatile; not just an easy-drinking-hot-day-on-the-porch pounder.  Zin can be made in every style; ranging from red, white, rose, and sweet wines. When made as a red wine the style of the wine can vary greatly depending on two factors; where the grape comes from and how the winemaker wants it to taste.  

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.  Here is how the winemaker decision comes into play: Zinfandel is often described as “jammy” or as having “mixed berry” flavors this is because the grapes themselves inconsistently ripen.

What does this ACTUALLY mean? On each individual bunch of Zinfandel grapes their will be a range of ripeness in the fruit — meaning, a mixture grape maturity; from tiny green berries to big red overripe berries.  So, depending on when the winemaker decides to pick the grapes, Zinfandel can be an underripe style with light bright, high acid red-fruit-driven wine to a dense, spicy, voluptuous, black-fruited, earth bomb.


Wine tasting in Napa Valley
Wine tasting in Napa Valley

The History of Zinfandel

Even though California Zinfandel has reached international acclaim this grape is not a Hella-Nor-Cal native.  It is commonly believed 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 is famous for creating 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: Deep fried foods and or spicy foods are your friends.

Favorite producer: Harvest Moon

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.

Favorites: Frog’s Leap, Bedrock Cellars, Ridge

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.

Favorite (if you can find it): Ridge Late Harvest Zin

Thank god for Zinfandel advice just in time for 4th of July. Drink well friends!