Zinfandel, The Only American Wine Grape


It's fitting that zinfandel is often considered the only true American grape, as the wines made from it are brash, big, bold, sometimes verging on port in their ripeness, sugar, and alcohol levels. November 19 is National Zinfandel Day and while no doubt there's National Name Something a Day Day by now, zinfandel deserves its moment in the sun, especially in fall when bigger wines are even more welcome as the mercury drops. Plus it's not a bad match for Thanksgiving, either (it's one of the few wines that can stand up to cranberry sauce, for instance). So here's a little explainer about this somewhat misunderstood varietal.

Does this have anything to do with white zinfandel, and why are you punishing me and my taste buds?

It's made from the same grape, but that's all. White zin became a craze in the late '70s when a batch at Sutter Home had its yeast die out before they chomped down on all the sugars (that's how alcohol is made). The sweet pink stuff became a huge hit, and still white zin is one of the biggest sellers in the wine aisle. People drink a lot of soda, too.

So what does a red zinfandel taste like, then?

California zins are mostly grown on old vines, and taste like it -- the age gives them a depth, a sense of soil and being around longer than you have. You have to like deep red fruit to like a zin, which can run the gamut of berriness, mostly raspberry or blackberry. But then some have black pepper, some a touch of tar, some cedar or briar. These are rarely shy wines -- in fact, it's a varietal that can get over 16% alcohol and still be balanced. So drink them when you want something larger than life.

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Where did this grape come from?

The Scullys and Mulders of the wine world finally sussed this out. It was long thought to be a descendant of the Italian primitivo, but it's actually primitivo's cousin, and both have DNA roots to the Croatian Crljenak Kastelanski. That's more of a mouthful than a taste of zin. For a bit when failed Gold Rusher started planting it in the late 19th century it was called Black St. Peters, and just for weirdness it's too bad it didn't keep that name.

What zinfandels should I be on the lookout for?

The king of California zinfandels is Turley, who make some still surprisingly well-priced intro blends (Old Vines and Juvenile) and lots of single vineyard expressions from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Lodi, Amador -- pretty much any place they grow good zin grapes. Ridge also makes wines from across the state in styles a bit more refined than Turley's and often blended with a bit of other oddball red grapes like carignane. Other fine producers include Bedrock, D-Cubed, Jeff Cohn Cellars, Rosenblum. When in doubt check out what ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) has to say, or check out their annual festival in late January in San Francisco.

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