A Study in Wine – Zinfandel

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This morning, as I ate my Cheerios, I caught a brief moment of Vice President Joe Biden being sworn in as the nation’s Vice President. On a bitterly cold day like today, this sight gave me a warm feeling of being an American. It inspired me to write about our nation’s most American wine grape: Zinfandel.

What is Zinfandel?

Zinfandel is a warm-climate red-wine grape that makes up 10 percent of the vines grown in California. The origin of the name Zinfandel is unknown. However, some experts believe it may have derived from the Austrian grape name Zierfandler, even though this is a white-grape variety. White and red Zinfandel wines are made from the same grape but are very different. White Zinfandel, created in the early 1970s by Sutter Home Winery’s winemaker Bob Trinchero, was made at first in the dry French style. In 1975, Bob experienced stuck fermentation with his new wine. Stuck fermentation is what happens when the yeast dies before all of the sugars are converted into alcohol. The result was a slightly sweeter, pink wine that consumers adored. The sweet, pink Zinfandel became very popular and still accounts for four times more sales than its rich, red counter part.

Where does Zinfandel grow?

Like most Americans, Zinfandel has family in Europe. Its Italian cousin, Primitivo is what most wine experts thought Zinfandel was genetically. However, it seems this little immigrant is actually Croatian. Tribidrag is the granddaddy of both Zinfandel and Primitivo, and even though Italian law states that Primitivo and Zinfandel are synonyms, Primitivo is more resistant to rot, ripens earlier, and is fruitier than spicy, temperamental Zinfandel. The reason Zinfandel is an American grape variety is because it got its name in America and became famous here. The best places to find terrific California Zinfandels are Amador, Dry Creek, Paso Robles, Mendocino County, Napa Valley, and Lodi. The flavor profiles range from big, ripe, and juicy, as in Amador, to spicy, peppery, and balanced acidity from Dry Creek.

What does Zinfandel taste like?

Zinfandel is very versatile. Many are lush, with ripe wild berry, vanilla, and reduced blackberry flavors, while others have spicy pepper, black cherry, and tobacco. They can have soft, round tannins, ideal for drinking by the fire on a cold winter’s night, or bold, intense tannins, which is better suited to a steak or the sweet sauces of barbecue.

What do I pair Zinfandel with?

Zin is like your best gal pal. You can dress her up for a filet mignon or down for some Tuesday-night pizza. Anything hearty, such as chili, beef stew, or ribs, goes well with many Zins. You’re going to want to lean toward the juicy, low-tannin style if you make your chili with an extra kick. As far as cheese goes, since Zin is so versatile, you could have a nutty, hard cheese like Parmesan with a dry, robust Zin, or an aged blue cheese like Roquefort with a juicy jammy Zin. Mmmm… That sounds good!

Which are my Favorites?

Hullabaloo Zinfandel Napa Valley, California 2010 $14.99 –

When I took my first sip of this wine, I thought blackberry jam! Juicy, ripe, and concentrated, with licorice, black pie fruits, and pepper, the Hullabaloo lives up to its strongman label, adding balance and structure to the mix.

Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi, California 2010 $17.99 –

Cedar and earth on the nose with ripe berry in the background, this is a serious Zin. The Klinker Brick is drier than most, showing black cherry, plum, baking spice, and well-integrated tannins.

Robert Biale Black Chicken Zinfandel Napa Valley, California 2010 $49.99 –

Black Chicken was the jug wine that Aldo Biale would give illegally to his regular customers on his chicken farm back in the late 1930s. Today, it is the standard of great Zinfandel. Spice box and red raspberry on the nose, with a world of depth ranging from earth to fresh-picked blueberries and from strawberry to hints of white pepper and nutmeg on the finish. There are two things I want you to remember about this wine: First, if you’re a Cabernet Sauvignon lover, cast away your snobbery and try this. And second, please let this age at least three years.

If you research apple pie, I am sure that you will find that its roots lie in some sort of strudel from Germany, but more than any wine, you can say that Zinfandel is as American as apple pie. I hope I have cleared up some of the confusion about America’s great grape and tempted you to try one!

Enjoy!

– Jennifer Laurie