Zinfandel vs Malbec: What’s the Difference?

zinfandel vs malbec

Two well-known but not always well understood varieties of red wine are Zinfandel and Malbec. These apparent similarities have led wine lovers to ask what the differences are between the two wines.

Zinfandel is a wine with a bold, layered flavor and a potentially high alcohol content. Malbec, on the other hand is smoother, richer, and fruitier, having an almost jam-like taste and texture.

This article will go into further detail about the differences between Zinfandel and Malbec wine, including their origins, where they are most commonly made, and what foods they pair best with.

Where do Zinfandel and Malbec Come From?

The origins of Zinfandel are a study in the challenges of grape genetics. Zinfandel is a genetic clone of Primitivo, which is a genetic clone of the Croatian grape Crljenak. So what does this mean? Genetically speaking a clone is a DNA sub-type, not the same thing. Grapes mutate very easily and viticulturists will often take a cutting from a particularly successful plant, graft it onto an existing root stock, and voila clone. After some time these mutations may become distinct enough to warrant being distinguished as a new “variety”. A good example is Pinot Meunier is a unique variety as well as a clone of Pinot Noir. So to say that these grapes are the same isn’t technically correct, but in an effort to not be painfully pedantic it’s safe to say all 3 of the grapes are the same, originating in Croatia, and brought to Southern Italy (Primitivo) and America (Zinfandel) around 1830. Much of this movement can be tied to the migration of Europeans (in this case read Italians) to California for gold.

A key distinguishing factor of the Zindandel grape is what it looks like. These grapes have striking black skins and grow in long, thick bunches, often with several dozen bunches hanging off individual vines. This leads to Zinfandel grapes having incredible crop yields compared to other wine grapes.

Zinfandel grapes are also unique for how resistant they are to hot climates and crowded growing conditions. Most grapes suffer in extreme heat or if grown in too large a number, but Zinfandel almost thrives in hot environments and in large amounts.

Due to this durability as well as the ability of vines to grow closely and yield a massive amount of grapes, Zinfandel is cheaper to produce than other wines. This is not only because of the sheer volume of grapes, but because warmer regions are cheaper to farm in. These savings are then passed on to customers, explaining the relatively low price of Zinfandel wine. This is not to say “finer” versions of the grape can’t be produced. Paso Robles CA, has become synonymous with the growing of Zin, and producers are constantly pushing the bounds of where the grape is grown, and how the wine is made.

The origins of the Malbec grape, are less clear and remain a topic of debate in the wine community. Some claim the grapes are native to Burgundy, like Pinot Noir, while others state they were brought to France by a Hungarian peasant. Thankfully, this lack of a coherent origins story does not affect the quality of Malbec grapes.

Malbec grapes are a rich purple color and grow in thick bunches on the vine, which can lead to massive crop yields. Unfortunately, Malbec grapes are vulnerable to many diseases and rots that can cut down their crop yields and make farming Malbec grapes noticeably harder.

This is also not helped by the fact that Malbec grapes are extremely vulnerable to cold temperatures. In fact a frost in Bordeaux in 1956 wiping out an estimated 75% of the Malbec crop. This lead to a steep decline in the plantings of Malbec in Bordeaux. In the South of France, in the Cahors region, the grape has remained popular event though it was hit with the same frost. It is very common in France to see the grape blended: in Bordeaux it is one of 6 varieties you can blend and still label your wine Bordeaux, in Cahors it is frequently blended with Tannat and Merlot.

How do Zinfandel and Malbec Taste?

With unique origins and growing limitations it’s inevitable that Zinfandel and Malbec have different tastes and textures.

Zinfandel runs the gambit from not particularly complex with sweet, fruity taste similar to berries or jam. The next step up in quality will reveal strong notes of smoke, cigar and spice which add bite to the wine’s aftertaste. Zinfandel also sports a full body due to it’s thick skins.

It should be noted that climate does effect how Zinfandel tastes and feels in the mouth. Many viticulturalist are experimenting with soil types and topography to affect flavor, as the grape needs a good amount of heat to truly ripen. Consider looking up Zinfandel from different regions to see what their individual climate effects are on the wine.

Zinfandel’s ABV, or alcohol by volume, ranges from 14% to 17%, which is noticeably higher. There is much debate around this, with many Zinfandel producers and lovers noting that the grape does not reach true varietal maturity on the vine until high levels of fermentable sugar are present. They are quick to point out that Zinfandel has an almost super natural ability to ferment, as many grapes left to ripen on the vine to comparable sugar levels, would stall there fermentation before reaching 17% alcohol. What does this mean? Zinfandel is naturally boozy. It’s on the winemaker to work with this. Many wineries have succeeded in creating exceptional balanced wines with Zinfandel.

In comparison to the assertive, layered spice of Zinfandel, Malbec is a more subdued, rounded wine. It has a similar fruity character to Merlot (blackberry, blueberry), with mild acidity and a moderate tannin level, which helps give the wine a full body. An interesting quality of Malbec is in its secondary characteristics, specifically notes of chocolate and vanilla not derived from oak. These flavors are made more prominent with oak maturation, but Malbec’s finish is almost universally tinged with a sweet, smoky similar cocoa or tobacco that can be quite pleasing to the palate.

Malbec’s middle of the road composition has made it popular as a blending grape and can be found in rosés, blushes, sparkling wines, and even desert variants with ease, so keep your eyes open for unique takes on Malbec.

In terms of ABV, Malbec is only slightly above average at 13% to 14%, which is on par with many other red wines like Merlot and Syrah. While this means Malbec is not as strong as Zinfandel, this also means the alcohol will not overpower other flavors in the mouth when drinking, making it a mellower wine.

What do Zinfandel and Malbec Pair With?

Zinfandel is at its best when its alcohol and spice nature are taken in to account. Paired with strong meats like smoked beef, and venison it stacks up, but avoid fatty cuts. It also does well with tomato-sauces, pasta, and can also be paired with some very common, low cost meals. Zinfandel works well with chilis, soups, and is the quintessential pizza wine. The ability to pair with less formal foods and easy drinking nature makes Zinfandel great for impromptu gatherings.

Malbec also pairs with red meats, but works better with dark, lean cuts. If you can find it, goat or lamb are great pairings. Particularly since the chocolately character pairs beautiful with aromatic herbs like rosemary and mint. In addition, Malbec is one of the red wines that pairs well with soft cheeses like Ementaler or Stilton.

Conclusion

As two of the most popular red wines in the business, enthusiasts often ask what the difference is between Zinfandel and Malbec wine.

Zinfandel is a strong wine with bold, exciting flavors ranging from sweet, to spicy, to smoky, and all topped off with a high ABV and a mildly tannic body. This, combined with its low cost, makes Zinfandel a great compliment for everything from steak to pepperoni pizza.

In contrast, Malbec is a smoother, sweeter wine thanks to its fruity flavor and chocolatey aftertaste. The mellow, full-bodied texture of this wine pairs well with lean meats, soft cheeses, and balanced spices.