Zinfandel and Chianti: What’s the Difference?

zinfandel vs chianti

One of the most fun aspects of wine is trying to decide what to drink on any given night. It can also be one of the more challenging aspects, with thousands of varieties to choose from and hundreds of thousands of labels. To help answer that question, we have written a few articles about the differences between wines commonly seen on a grocery store shelf or restaurant wine list. Check out the rest of the series here:

  • What’s the Difference between Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon?
  • What’s the Difference between Pinot Noir and Syrah/Shiraz?
  • What’s the Difference between Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz?
  • What’s the Difference between Merlot and Chianti?

Now, onto the main question: what are the differences between Zinfandel and Chianti? First, let’s look at these two grapes separately and explain a little of their history, and outline the most common examples that you’ll see out in the world.

Zinfandel is widely known as California’s flagship grape. It is most widely planted in California, and the best-known examples in the world come from there. While Chardonnay and Cabernet have more plantings in California, it is Zinfandel that differentiates the US on an international level. Originally brought from Italy, where it is known as Primitivo, it has now been proven that Zinfandel came from Croatia initially, where it is called Tribidrag.

One of the more popular wines in the US, Zinfandel has gone in and out of style. The wines tend to be full bodied, high alcohol, deeply colored, and taste of ripe berry pie or jam. Lately, more restrained examples have been emerging with lower alcohol levels, higher acidity, and more herbal and savory character. This is especially due to the resurgence of old-vine Zinfandel, which give more savory character and complexity than the younger vines, which produce larger berries and more jammy versions. Sonoma County and Paso Robles are especially well known for their Zinfandel’s, where many of the old-vineyards can be dry farmed and left mostly to themselves. However, there are still plenty of high yielding Central Valley vineyards which make gallons upon gallons of the juicy style of Zinfandel that you see in corner stores around the country.

Chianti, the region, is most famous for the wine made from Sangiovese, and many people still know it from the ‘Fiascoes’, or straw bottle covers, that used to be wrapped around large jugs of the wine, which grew in popularity in the 1970’s and onward. Nowadays most Chianti is bottled normally, although you can still find an old-school bottle every now and then. Sangiovese, the grape used to make Chianti and Chianti Classico (the heart of the region), is actually grown all throughout Italy. It appears in some of their most famous wines like Chianti or Brunello, but alsois grown in high yielding vineyards on the coastal plains, where it is used for supermarket bulk wines packed in boxes or jugs. Tuscany, where Chianti is located, is where Sangiovese gained its fame.

Wines made from Sangiovese can range in style from big, brooding oaked wines meant for aging and light, zippy, cherry flavored wines meant for early consumption. However, generally with wines labelled Chianti or Chianti Classico you are looking at a good middle ground: medium tannins, high acidity, medium alcohol, and bright cherry flavors. Depending on whether or not it has an age designation, like Riserva or Gran Selezione, you may get more oak flavor and the wine may have slightly higher tannin levels. The best part about Chianti, however, is its ability to pair with food, especially pizza and pasta; which makes sense, as it is made in the heart of Italy, where pizza and pasta are a daily part of life!

Comparing Zinfandel and Chianti is all about looking at the classical differences between Old World (Europe) and New World (USA, South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) wines. While the lines have been blurring recently, with New World wines getting slightly lighter and Old World in style, with Chianti and Zinfandel the differences are still in plain sight. Generally, Old World wines have more acidity, lower alcohol, and less ripe fruit character, with more savory notes showing. New World wines are riper, which leads to higher alcohol, lower acidity, and fruit forward styles. Zinfandel is almost always going to have higher alcohol, tannins, and more cooked fruit flavors. Think jams, pies, and pastries made with ripe berries like blackberry, boysenberry, and black cherry. Because of its higher alcohol level and bigger body, it can hold up to richer, more meaty food. Barbecued ribs, wood fired steaks, and juicy hamburgers are all great matches to Zinfandel, accentuating the ripe berry notes in the wine. However, Zinfandel tends to keep its acidity even at very ripe levels, which means that the fattiness of barbecued foods is kept at bay by the wine, whose acidity cuts through the layers of velvet fat coating the palate. Chianti, on the other hand, is much more built to pair with the kinds of foods they would eat in Tuscany: pasta with Bolognese, margarita pizza, and Bistecca Fiorentina, a large cut of incredibly tender and mild steak made from the Chianina cow native to the region. Like Zinfandel, the acidity of the Sangiovese grape helps to cut through the richness of those dishes, but the light cherry flavors, medium tannins, and lower alcohol of Chianti would not hold up well to dishes made with stronger ingredients. In a pinch however, Chianti is more versatile as a food pairing wine, as it could even be drunk with a richer preparation of salmon, or a heavily spiced roasted pork tenderloin, or a lightly seasoned Bistecca. Zinfandel, on the other hand, can really only be paired with heavier foods on the meatier end of the spectrum. Chianti, therefore, is also a better wine to drink on its own, as you can drink multiple glasses without tiring out your palate. Zinfandel, while delicious, can be a bit heavy after one or two glasses. That being said, Zinfandel will also be more likely to open up and build in complexity after a day of being open, while a simple Chianti will probably taste just the same. If you move into Brunello di Montalcino or Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, both also made from Sangiovese, then it’s a different story…a story for a different article!