Zinfandel Wines - The Spice of Life

Red Zinfandel is an “American Classic” wine.  Until recently, Zinfandel was marked as a "mystery grape" in California as the origin was unknown.  Through recent Ampelography studies, it has been discovered that the Zinfandel grape is genetically identical to Italy's Primativo and to an ancient Croatian variety known as Crjenak Kastelanski.  The Zinfandel grape's actual origin is in Italy but is now primarily grown in California. Zinfandel grows best in cool, coastal locations which California has a lot of.  Differences in vine vigor and grape cluster size tend to separate the Croatian and Italian vines as both have the Zinfandel flavor profile but are greatly affected by cultivation, terroir and the winemaking process.  This has led Zinfandel in America to develop its own independent history based on its particular flavor profile, name, history, and style.  It is believed that the California Zinfandel probably originated in Croatia.  On wine labels, U.S. regulations require that Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately.

The effects of terroir are tremendous with this varietal.  I purchased a six bottle case from Turley Vineyards that were of the same vineyard, same vintage but from different blocks of the Pesenti Vineyard.  Turley is highly known in the wine industry for their expertise with this varietal.  The blocks varied, based on location such as hill tops, valley, sun exposure, soil, etc.  A tasting was arranged with a group of my wine aficionados to analyze these Zinfandels.  Each bottle displayed varying characteristics in profile on the palate and nose.

Poster by Chuck & Heidi Wiedeman

Poster by Chuck & Heidi Wiedeman

Historians believe that in the 1820s a nursery owner brought Zinfandel cuttings from Croatia to the United States from an Austrian collection.  The Zinfandel name is truly American as the earliest and only documented use of the name is in America where a Boston nursery owner advertised Zinfandel for sale in 1832.

Based on historical records, Zinfandel vines were introduced to California during the Gold Rush era somewhere between 1852 and 1857.  With the affinity of Zinfandels to California, it became widely planted and thrived on the state’s climate and soil.  Today, Zinfandel is the third-leading wine grape varietal in California.  It grows so well in California that it is grown in 45 of California's 58 counties. 

The majority of the grapes are used for making the ever so popular White Zinfandel wines.  This is the result of many people looking for a sweeter more approachable wine.  Let's face it, we all were purchasing this wine in our early years.  It was far less expensive than most of the wines.  There are, however, many red Zinfandel connoisseurs which is why there are more than 4800 California red Zinfandel wines produced.  As a note, the red Zinfandel grape is also used to make white Zinfandel wine.  The difference is that the skins are removed and not used in making white Zinfandel. It is the skin that provides the deep red color as well as the robust flavor and tannins with a fruit profile from the grape. White Zinfandels outsell red Zinfandels by as much as six times in the United States.

The color of a Zinfandel wine is deep red, bordering on black. Characteristic flavor of Zinfandel on the palate is spice and pepper along with a fruity flavor which varies.  The flavors of berries or dark cherries are often noted on the palate.  Zinfandel grapes have a high sugar content which produces alcohol contents that exceed 15 percent.

The taste of the red Zinfandel is influenced by the ripeness of the grapes from which it is produced.  Red berry fruits like raspberries and dark cherries are predominate in cooler areas, whereas blackberries, anise, and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas. Wines from extremely hot regions, such as Temecula, tend to display a raisin/prune profile.  “Katrina”, a Zinfandel from Briar Rose Winery, was an exception when I tasted it many years ago.  It had the expected peppery dark berry flavor profile without the typical raisin or prune flavors found in many of the Zinfandels from this region.  

Serving temperature for a red Zinfandel should be around 65 degrees from a narrow-mouthed glass to get the full effect of the wine.  Most people like to drink Zinfandels young – within a year or two, but there are also quite a few Zinfandels that age well. There is a big change in Zinfandels when aged as the flavors become far more mellow. It is your choice if your palate favors the taste of a young Zinfandel over an old one!

GOTN Zinfandel provided many interesting examples of this beautiful varietal.  Here was the lineup:

  • 2006 Caymus Vineyards Rutherford (Napa)

    • Nose:  Medium dark red berries

    • Palate:  Med dark red berries and white pepper

  • 2012 Pulchella Wines - City Slicker Paso Robles

    • Blend of 68% Zinfandel & 32% Petite Shirah

    • Nose:  Gamey, white pepper, faint dark berries & raisins

    • Palate:  Medium - deep dark berries, white pepper & raisin

  • 2014 Predator Old Vine Zin - Lodi

    • Nose:  Smokey caramel, red fruits & sweet

    • Palate:  Smokey, red fruit & sweet

  • 2014 Oak Ridge Ancient Vine - Lodi

    • Nose:  Lighter caramel & red fruit

    • Palate:  Soft spices on the finish & muddled red fruit

  • 2014 Turley Dusi Vineyard - Paso Robles

    • Nose:  Medium - dark fruit & medium white pepper

    • Palate:  Deep dark fruit with a long finish

Grape of the Night Zinfandel was a huge success.  It captured everyone's attention as we explored the diversity of what was termed the "mystery grape".  It indeed wears many hats when it comes to aromatics and flavor.  Thank you, Tanya, for sponsoring our group at Wine 661.  It was a fantastic evening where everyone added a little spice to their evening.  In closing, I would like to share Appellation America's philosophical view of this beautiful wine called Zinfandel, "Zinfandel…You’re a master of disguise. Who is that masked man known as ZIN? You hide behind a mask of contradictory styles. Are you the soft, sweet hombre oft seen in the Central Valley, disguised in a vibrant pink cape? Or perhaps you are the fire-breathing rogue of the Sierra Foothills, a spicy-natured, tannic beast. How will you appear next?…and where! Always willing to change your facade to suit the environment, your true nature seems to be adaptability, itself. You are a legend in California; friend of the poor pisano, and delight to the pompous patron. Truth is, you’re no robber at all…you give to all!"


Rusty Sly