March is a great month to get ready for some wonderful Zinfandel! Over the past twenty or thirty years there has been a good deal of madness associated with Zinfandel. Where did it come from and what is the real zinfandel supposed to taste like? Is the Italian Primitivo the real Zinfandel or was a grape from Croatia? Some Croatians, however, became convinced that Plavac Mali was the same as Zinfandel, among them Croatian-born winemaker Mike Grgich. Zinfandel is a big red wine and depending where it is grown will have very different characteristics. One of the most confusing occurrences that happened to Zinfandel made a lot of money for the California wine industry.
In 1972, Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery decided to try draining some juice from the vats in order to impart more tannins and color to his Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel. He vinified this juice as a dry wine, and tried to sell it under the name of Oeil de Periux, a Swiss wine made by this method. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms insisted on an English translation, so he added “White Zinfandel” to the name, and sold 220 cases. At the time, demand for white wine exceeded the availability of white wine grapes, encouraging other California producers to make “white” wine from red grapes, with minimal skin contact. However, in 1975, Trinchero’s wine experienced a Stuck Fermentation; a problem in which the yeast dies off before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. He put the wine aside for two weeks, then tasted it and decided to sell this pinker, sugary wine. Just as Metus Rose had become a huge success in Europe after World War II, this medium sweet White Zinfandel became immensely popular. White Zinfandel still accounts for 9.9% of U.S. wine sales by volume (6.3% by value), six times the sales of red Zinfandel. Most White Zinfandel is made from grapes grown for that purpose in California’s Central Valley.
Wine critics considered White Zinfandel to be insipid and uninteresting in the 1970s and 1980s, although modern white Zinfandels have more fruit and less cloying sweetness. It is called grandma’s wine and is looked down upon by “real wine drinkers”. Nevertheless, the success of this sweet easy drinking wine saved many old vines in premium areas, which came into their own at the end of the 20th century as red Zinfandel wines came back into fashion. Although the two wines taste dramatically different, both are made from the same (red) grapes. Great Zin growing areas include the following:
Amador County has a reputation for big, full-bodied Zinfandel. These extra-ripe wines have been called jammy, briary, and brambly, having aromas of sweet berries. Although the Santa Cruz Mountains in Santa Cruz Valley produces Zinfandel from just 9 acres, the Zinfandel from that region is known for its complexity and depth.
Sonoma County has a Zinfandel-producing land area second only to that of San Joaquin County. The county contains the warm Dry Creek Valley, known for its juicy Zinfandel with bright fruit, balanced acidity and notes of blackberry, anise and pepper. Dry Creek Valley produces Zinfandel in a variety of styles ranging from the high-alcohol Amador style to balanced, spicy wines.
San Luis Obispo, particularly the Passo Robles area with its hot days and cool evenings, produces Zinfandel known for being soft and round.
While the Napa Valley area is known primarily for its Cabernet, Merlow and Serah, Napa also produces Zinfandel wines described as plummy and intense, tasting of red berry fruits with cedar and vanilla. Zinfandel in Napa tends to be made in a style like red bordeaux.
The Russian River generally produces well during warm years. Otherwise, the grapes do not fully ripen, leaving the wines with excessive acidity. The area has mostly “old vine” Zinfandel, characterized as spicy and somewhat lower in alcohol than Zinfandel from other regions. Mendicino Zinfandel wines have been considered high quality, but they are less known because they are not heavily marketed and don’t make it out to the east coast. Lodi has some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in California. While often used for White Zinfandel production, in the red style, Lodi Zinfandels have a reputation for being juicy and approachable.
I like the Zins from Lodi. There are lots of Old Vine Zins that I love and the wines are big but a little more easy drinking. So during March Wine Madness, go out and find your favorite Zinfandel. You will be glad you did. (Don’t forget to try Premitivo! It is the Italian Zin made in Pullia!)
Ray Spaziani is the Chapter Director of the New Haven Chapter of the American Wine Society. He teaches wine appreciation classes at Gateway CC and for the Milford Board of Education and is a member of the International Tasting Panel of Amenti Del Vino and Wine Maker Magazine. He is an award winning home wine maker. Email Ray with your questions and wine events at firstname.lastname@example.org.