An Overview of Zinfandel w/ History And Tasting Notes

One of the most popular red wine vintages in the United States is Zinfandel, often being one of the first red wines new enthusiasts try.

This is because Zinfandel is an incredibly sweet and fruity red wine with a light color, bold flavor and high ABV.

This combination of light sweetness with bold spice has made Zinfandel a particularly popular vintage in recent years. Beyond its unique flavor qualities, Zinfandel is known to pair with a diverse array of foods and creates an excellent rosé. This article will go over the origins, qualities, pairings, and variations of Zinfandel in detail.

The Origins of Zinfandel

Where exactly Zinfandel comes from is a bit of a hot topic among vintners and historians, as no one has been able to find a definitive source. Who first cultivated Zinfandel and when can span from the Balkans in the Stone Age to Boston in the 1800s, with historical stop offs in Italy and Austria in between.

The furthest Zinfandel can be traced back is to the first discovered instance of winemaking and wine grape cultivation in modern day Croatia round 6,000 B.C. While it cannot be confirmed if these grapes are the same as modern Zinfandel, two distant cousins of the grape can still be found in the regions, and are known locally as CrljenakKaštelanski and Tribidrag.

From there the first recorded use of the word Zinfandel comes from an American vintage sold in Boston, although it was initially sold as “Zenfendal”. The grapes used in this wine, and the name itself, have been traced back to an Austrian wine grape known as Zierfandler, which was brought to America from the Imperial Nursery of the Holy Roman Empire.

Despite its Austrian origins, the grapes eventually found their way west to California’s wine country, becoming a staple of west coast vineyards. Today Zinfandel is one of the most popular and widely produced wines in California, and is sometimes referred to as “America’s Wine Grape” because of this.

Back in 1870, however, Zinfandel grapes were introduced as Primitivo in Italy, with the name meaning “first to ripen” as Zinfandel grapes ripen much more quickly than other strains of red grape. How exactly these grapes came to Italy, or whether or not they came from Italy first and were not recorded until 1870, remains an open question.

While the precise origins of Zinfandel are a mystery, and will likely remain so for some time, the grapes used to make Zinfandel and the wine they create are a lot less enigmatic.

Zinfandel Viticulture

Zinfandel wine comes from a strain of black wine grapes known for their rapid ripening process. Zinfandel grapes grow in large but very tight bunches on the vine, although these bunches do not always ripen at the same time. This has led some vintners to pick individual grapes off vines over multiple weeks rather than mechanically harvest crops whole.

Some vintners have taken to using other harvesting methods to change the qualities of their Zinfandel. By harvesting and using grapes and different levels of ripening they can create a fruitier wine with more diverse flavors, while harvesting later after all the grapes have ripened creates a sweeter wine as the grapes contain more natural sugar.

These grapes have a very thin skin, leaving them susceptible to vine rot and other conditions, but at the same time they have a naturally high sugar content, making them sweet. Zinfandel grapes are also known to heavily reflect the terroir, or wine growing environment, they are grown in as they develop unique qualities based on where they come from.

As an example, Zinfandel grapes grown in warmer tend to develop notes of tartness and spice such as blackberries and peppers when bottled, whereas grapes grown in slightly cooler regions often develop sweeter, fruiter flavors like raspberry and vanilla. In this way you can guess what a Zinfandel tastes like based on where it comes from, and vice versa.

In terms of environment, Zinfandel grows best in a warm, sunny climate where they can grow and ripen quickly. If the climate is too hot, however, the grapes will shrivel and die on the vine, so moderation is key when growing Zinfandel. This is why the grapes grow so well in southern California and Italy, as these locations have a warm but not scorching climate.

What Zinfandel Tastes Like

Zinfandel has a strong, fruity flavor similar to berries or fruit jam with strong notes plums and cherries. This is accented with subtle tastes that can range from sweet cinnamon and vanilla to spicy tobacco and black pepper. The combination of this naturally fruitiness with touches of sweetness and spice gives Zinfandel a naturally bold flavor.

Zinfandel’s bold flavors are accented, not by its slight dryness or lack of acidity, but by a remarkably high ABV, or alcohol by volume. The ABV of most red wines sits at around 13%, whereas Zinfandel can range from 14% to 17%. A high ABV creates a bolder taste and draws out a wine’s other flavors, meaning that Zinfandel’s flavors are especially strong.

In contrast to the strength and diversity of Zinfandel’s flavors, the body of Zinfandel is noticeably light and smooth, closer to Pinot Noir than most other heavy-bodied red wines. This is complimented by the light color of Zinfandel which appears closer to a rosé or blush rather than a full red wine.

This unique body, and even some of the flavor of Zinfandel, come from of how Zinfandel is produced. The deep color, fullness, and dry taste of red wine come from the skins of red grapes being soaked in juice as it ferments, a process call maceration. Since Zinfandel is only partially macerated, however, it develops a lighter color and body compared to other reds.

By macerating Zinfandel less than other red wines, vintners create a red wine with a powerful flavor yet a remarkably mellow body, an interesting contrast.

What Zinfandel Pairs With

The boldness of Zinfandel’s flavor pairs rather nicely with equally strong flavors, the spicier or smokier the better. Between its rich, complex taste and remarkably high ABV, Zinfandel is the dinner wine of the daring, and will compliment equally daring and foods from the high class to the comfortingly common.

Barbeque is the best companion for Zinfandel when looking for meat, especially if it is heavily seasoned. Look for ribs, chicken, lamb, or steak, all well grilled or roasted, while blackened game meats and fish will also pair nicely with Zinfandel. If you are looking for something extra meaty, try wrapping one of these options in bacon for extra flavor.

If you are looking for a vegetable pairing, the grill also works well here as Zinfandel goes great with caramelized onions, roasted peppers, grilled zucchini, and baked beans. Any vegetable you can grill, roast, bake, smoke, or fry will not only compliment the natural flavors of Zinfandel, but the flavors of the barbequed meats it pairs with as well.

Smoking and grilling even work in terms of cheese pairings, as bold flavors like smoked gouda and grilled halloumi pair perfectly with a glass of Zinfandel. Other pairing options include comte and the various cheddars such as sharp or aged, all of which complement the bold fruitiness of Zinfandel nicely.

Finally, if you are looking to prepare your own meal or add some spice to a dish with your Zinfandel then you should look for smoky, spicy flavors. Curry, cumin, black pepper, and cinnamon all pair well with Zinfandel. Even spicier drinks like black leaf tea, coffee, and cocoa can sit well with a glass of Zinfandel, if you are feeling curious.

So, in general, the best pairings for Zinfandel are bold flavors, especially smoky, spicy, and sharp tastes.

What is White Zinfandel?

White Zinfandel is a bit of a misnomer, as the wine is actually a type of rosé made in the specific French Saignée style. Saignée, which means “bleeding” in French, is the process of creating a rosé by siphoning some wine off a red batch early in the production process, separating it from the red grape skins left in the original batch.

Since grape skins impart color and body to the wine, this creates a light, pinkish color and dry, airy body unique to rosés without having to blend or dilute the wine. These wines are also remarkably sweeter when compared to standard Zinfandel, as their fermentation is killed before all of the natural sugars are converted to alcohol, creating a more pleasant drink.

White Zinfandel was famously created almost by accident in California in 1970, in the winery of Sutter House. While trying to create a more potent Zinfandel, two vintners decided to syphon off some of the liquid to create a more concentrated final product. The syphoned wine was found to be remarkably light and sweet, so it was also marketed as White Zinfandel.

White Zinfandel does work with many of the same meats and seasoning as regular Zinfandel, but has a few more viable complements. White Zinfandel also goes well with pastas, creamy sauces, and more acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus, as well as egg and poultry based meals.

Zinfandel’s quality, history, and food pairings match the uniqueness of its predecessor, and create another excellent drink for wine enthusiasts to enjoy.

To Summarize

Zinfandel is one of the more popular wines in the United States, having famously earned the title of America’s Wine Grape, and not without good reason.

While the origins of these grapes are shrouded in mystery, their quality, versatility, and uniqueness are not. Zinfandel is far bolder than most red wines combining a bold, complex flavor and a high ABV for strength with a light body and smooth taste, all rare qualities among red wines.

♦ In-Depth Varietal Comparisons

If you have any experience with Zinfandel then you may find some of these comparison pieces interesting, helpful, and educational.

Differences Between Zinfandel & Cabernet Sauvignon
Differences Between Zinfandel & Malbec
Differences Between Zinfandel & Merlot
Differences Between Zinfandel & Pinot Noir
Differences Between Zinfandel & Syrah
Differences Between Zinfandel & Shiraz
Differences Between Zinfandel & Chianti

♦ Questions Our Readers Have About Zinfandel

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