Taste: Big and intense with red fruit flavors of raspberry and cranberry (cooler regions) and rich juicy flavors of blackberry and plum, accompanied by the spiciness of pepper, clove and cinnamon (warmer regions). Oak adds additional vanilla, cedar and smoky notes.
Tannin: Medium to high
Acidity: Medium to high
Age: Best enjoyed within a few years of release, but the highest quality wines age well.
Other: Tends to be high in alcohol.
Zinfandel (ZIN-fan-dell) has been adopted by California, which has done so much to develop and promote this quality grape. It has a long history in the American west, having originally been used to make wine for the miners of the famous gold rush of 1849.
However, its origins remained a mystery until the 1990s, when DNA profiling confirmed that it is genetically the same as the Primitivo variety from Southern Italy, but not absolutely identical – they are both clones of the same variety (see Primitivo in the Powerful style). More recently, it has been confirmed that it is actually identical to a Croatian grape variety that is known by several names, including Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag.
Zinfandel is an early ripening grape variety that likes a long warm growing season with hot days followed by cool nights. In these ideal conditions it will achieve full ripeness while retaining acidity. It has been used to produce pretty much every style of wine, but what it makes best are big, robust, intense wines full of character and personality. These powerful wines are very full bodied with medium to high tannins, bright acidity and high alcohol levels.
One of Zinfandel’s main attributesis its fruit-driven character, which varies in intensity depending on where it is grown. In cooler regions red fruit flavors, such as raspberry and cranberry, are more prominent, while in warmer regions its ripe ‘brambly’ fruit comes through, with rich juicy flavors of blackberry and plum accompanied by the spiciness of pepper, clove and cinnamon. It takes very well to controlled oak contact, which adds additional vanilla, cedar and smoky notes.
There is no doubt that old vines produce the best wines, as yields are naturally low (Zinfandel has a tendency to over-produce) resulting in denser structure and better balance. Many of these wines from old vines, especially single vineyard examples, are world class and as they age, develop more complex flavors of coconut, cigar box, herbs and tobacco.
It is quite common for winemakersto add a little Petite Sirah to their Zinfandel wines. In general, most Zinfandels should be consumed within a few years of release as only the highest quality wines have long aging potential.
Mention should be made of White Zinfandel. It is not actually a white wine, but a Blush wine or Rosé, which is made by removing the skins of the Zinfandel grapes from the juice after they are pressed. This prevents most of the dark red pigment in the skins from coloring the wine, which as a result ends up pink. They are generally quite sweet to taste but can be dry, have little or no tannin and may have a small amount of Muscat or Riesling added to give an aromatic quality.
White Zinfandels are considered to be more like a fruit punch than a wine. Most are mass-produced from high-yielding vines to keep costs down and meet specific retail price points. They became enormously successful in the 1980s, so much so, that they marked a revival in the fortunes of Zinfandel, which might otherwise have been replaced by varieties that were more popular at the time, resulting in the loss of many precious old vines. White Zinfandel remains extremely popular in the United States today.
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