Zinfandel – Interesting History, Interesting Wine

The Thursday night tasting at Fine Wines of Stockton featured Zinfandel. We live in the heart of Zinfandel country. Lodi, just 15 minutes north of Stockton, has significant plantings of Zinfandel as do the Sierra Foothills. The tasting included five wines from the Sierra Foothills and one from Lodi. It was our mission to identify the Lodi wine in the group.

Zinfandel is widely-planted in California. Behind Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and just ahead of Merlot in terms of acres planted in California, Zinfandel has a long history in the Golden State.

Zinfandel came to California before the Gold Rush of 1849 via New York state, where it was brought in 1820 as an unnamed cutting from the Imperial collection in Vienna, Austria. It was a popular table grape in New York where it was advertised as “Zinfendal”, “Zinfardel” and “Zinfindal”. Sometime between 1835 and 1845 it was brought to California and by then was referred to as “Zinfandel”.

Fueled by demand from gold miners for wine, Zinfandel’s popularity grew rapidly in California. The variety produced abundant fruit and a rich flavorful wine.

DNA analysis has confirmed Zinfandel’s origin is central Dalmatia. The trail of discovery went through Puglia in southern Italy, where Primitivo was observed to look and taste similar to Zinfandel. Carole Meredith and John Bowers at the University of California, Davis confirmed their singular identity in 1994.

Because Primitivo had been referred to as Zagarese in Puglia as far back as the eighteenth century, its origin had been assumed to be Dalmatia. Dr. Meridith, with encouragement from Mike Grgich himself Croatian, initiated an investigation with a group of researchers at the University of Zagreb in 1998 in order to confirm Zinfandel’s origin. The first target of their investigation, Plavac Mali, turned out not to be a genetic match for Zinfandel. Eventually, another Croatian variety, Crljenak Kaštelanski turned out to be the perfect genetic match.

One more name to include. In Wine Grapes by Robinson et al, you will be directed to Tribidrag when you look for Zinfandel. This is because Tribidrag is the oldest Croatian name for the grape variety. Tribidrag derives from a Greek phrase meaning “early ripening”. Primitivo in Italy derives from a Latin word with the same meaning. The original meaning of Zinfandel is not documented.

Zinfandel is extremely adaptable, growing well in many soil types and climates. Berry clusters are compact making them susceptible to bunch rot. Grape clusters ripen unevenly requiring several passes through the vineyard to harvest fruit at the desired ripeness. Many are hand-harvested.

Zinfandel can produce a variety of styles of wine from “White Zinfandel” to late harvest “Port” style wines. Sugar level at harvest has a significant influence on the flavors of the wine. Zinfandel is capable of developing quite high levels of sugar and very high alcohol levels.

Both Lodi and the Sierra Foothills have very old plantings of Zinfandel. These old vineyards, some planted in the 1880s, are mostly dry-farmed, head-trained vines. You can spot them because the vines stand alone, that is there is no wire running along the rows and the vines are gnarly with age (you may also be looking at ancient Cinsault, Lodi has some of that too). Yield can be as low a 1 to 2.5 tons per acre.

A good deal of the Zinfandel planted in California’s Central Valley is used to produce White Zinfandel or to blend into bulk wine. But in areas like Sonoma, Napa Valley, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills there have always been wineries making Zinfandel that expresses the local terroir. Let’s see what George and Gail have collected for us to sample.

2010 Shenandoah Vineyards Amador County Zinfandel $11. This ruby-colored wine has an extremely light body with flavors and scents of berries, black pepper and a bit of cedar. The tannins are smooth and well-integrated. Drink this pleasant wine now, no need to age it. Probably the lightest wine in the group

2011 St Amant Old Vine ZinfandelLodi Rules Certified Green2011 St Amant Mohr-Fry Ranch Old Vine Zinfandel $18. Medium ruby in the glass with scents of very ripe dark fruit. Sweet, rich, ripe dark fruit flavors with a bit of vanilla, good acid and smooth tannins produce a slightly heavier-bodied wine. This wine is more concentrated than the prior wine. The group correctly identified this as the Lodi Zinfandel. This wine is produced following Lodi Rules TM and is “Certified Green”. See our prior post for the details.

Rosenblum Cellars Vintner’s Cuvee XXXIV Zinfandel $17. Ripe cherry and dried plum flavors dominate with a bit of vegetal flavor in the background. Light in the mouth with slightly grippy tannins, it finishes with vanilla and spice.

2011 Easton Amador County Zinfandel $20. Ruby in the glass with a restrained dark fruit nose. Dark berry flavors with significant, grippy tannins and great acidity produced a very light-in-the-mouth wine. The tannins linger in this wine. This wine provoked a lengthy discussion. Some found it unbalanced with regard to fruit and tannins, some tasted more wood than others. Very interesting.

2010 Sobon Estate Fiddletown Zinfandel $21. Dark ruby in the glass with dried fruit scents. This wine has dark, very ripe fruit flavors and very drying tannins with a medium weight in the mouth. Overall, very ripe fruit flavors.

2010 Sobon Rezerve Amador County Primitivo $24.50 This wine was inky dark in the glass. Very ripe berry and plum flavors combine with spice and very grippy tannins. Another wine with sweet, ripe flavors.

In spite of the fact that Primitivo and Zinfandel have been proved to be the same genetically, some winemakers feel there is a physical difference between the two. Specifically the back side of the leaves and the size and density of grape clusters is different. Primitivo is said to ripen earlier than Zinfandel. Some winemakers insist there is a difference in flavor profiles between the two.

In the European Union, Primitivo and Zinfandel are used interchangeably. In the US, they are not. So, in the California Grape Acreage Report 2012 you will see acreage for both Zinfandel and Primitivo. You will see wines labeled using either name. So there you have it. Just a few more facts to consider along with climate, location and terroir. Who said wine tasting was easy?

A common characteristic among these wines was great acidity. The degree of ripeness varies, so you can choose the level of ripeness you prefer. All had lots of flavor and light to medium weight in the mouth, two characteristics that make red wine enjoyable during warm-weather months and a good companion to barbecue.

I don’t know about you, but I am now very motivated to get out there and taste some more Zinfandel and Primitivo. I want to go into the vineyards and see the vines and the grapes. Then I want to taste the wines. Sounds like a road trip is in order late this summer.


Reference: Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, José Vouillamoz

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