Wine geek’s talk: The Zinfandel story
Speaking of Zinfandel, most people studying wine already know that this is the same grape as Primitivo. But do you know the story behind the variety’s revival in the US? From the origin to classic styles and regions, read all about the story behind the 'Zin'.
Most people studying wine already know that Zinfandel is the same grape as Primitivo, a grape variety mainly found in Puglia, Italy’s heel region. What many might not know however is that its cradle is in fact situated on the opposite side of the Adriatic Sea, in Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski or Tribidrag (you’ll actually find the entry about Zinfandel in Jancis Robinson’s book ‘Wine Grapes’ under that name). According to various sources, it was imported to the US neither from Italy nor Croatia, but from Austria in the 1820’s. It was first planted not in California, but on the East coast, in the Long Island region. The grape was first planted on the West Coas allegedly in the 1850’s, where its high yielding property fitted the needs of the thirsty gold-seekers, and thus quickly became the most widely planted grape variety in California.
During prohibition (1920-1933), Zinfandel remained popular among local home winemakers, but its thin skin made it too sensitive for the long journey to the Eastern states, and many vines were therefore uprooted to the benefit of the thicker-skinned grapes Alicante Bouschet. Zinfandel sank into oblivion for a few decades, most probably relegated into the anonymity of fortified wines, which were then very popular across new world countries.
The pivotal year for Zinfandel’s revival is 1972. That year, Bob Trinchero of Napa-based Sutter Home Winery, decided to perform a saignée (winemaking technique which involves draining-off some juice from a fermenting wine to increase the skin-to-juice ratio) on a vat of Zinfandel in order to produce a darker wine. Trinchero made a dry rosé wine from the siphoned juice and called it ‘White Zinfandel’, a name adapted to the then white-wine-driven market. Three years after, the fermentation of his pink wine got stuck, meaning that yeasts stopped working before all the sugar got converted into alcohol, thus producing a sweeter wine with a lower alcohol content. After a few weeks, Bob Trinchero finally resigned himself to bottle this sweeter version of his White Zinfandel, and this actually became a classic commercial success case: while only 200 or so cases were made back in 1972, Sutter Home now produces over 4.5 million cases of White Zinfandel! Most importantly, White Zinfandel was such a success that it aroused interest among consumers (and therefore producers) in the red wines made from that grape, and saved thousands of old vines from uprooting.
Viticulture and winemaking
There are many bush-trained, old vines Zinfandel in California, some of which over 100 years old. These old vines are generally grafted on a rootstock called ‘St George’ as those grafted on the other popular rootstock ‘AxR1’ died from Phylloxera infection in the 1980’s.
The grapes borne by these vines tend to reach maturity in September, slightly later than their Italian relative. For the story, Primitivo’s original name used to be Primativo, from the latin word primativus, which actually means ‘first to ripen’.
As mentioned above, Zinfandel is a thin-skinned grape variety making it quite sensitive to rot and downy mildew. This is exacerbated by the tightness of its clusters, obstructing air circulation between the berries. It therefore performs best in dry regions, such as in California or Southern Italy, or at least on well-drained soils with sufficient warmth. Under adequate conditions, it can produce very high yields, reaching eight tonnes per acre (about 152 hl/ha), but quality-conscious producers will aim at about three tonnes per acre (about 57 hl/ha). As pointed out by David Miles, head educator at Ravenswood in the Sonoma Valley, ‘in order to encourage air circulation and to keep the vigour under control, Zinfandel needs constant pruning’, implying hours of work in the vineyard.
The main issue with Zinfandel however is the tendency of its grapes to ripen unevenly, meaning that perfectly ripe berries will rub shoulders with over-ripe and under-ripe fruit within the same cluster. Many red wine winemakers will harvest their grapes when fully ripen, implying that concentrated, raisin-like grapes will be mixed into the fermentation vessel, leading to a final product measuring elevated degrees of alcohol (16% abv is quite common).
Zinfandel can be made in a wide range of styles, the most famous being White Zinfandel, which accounts for almost 85% of Zinfandel produced in California. Although called ‘white’, these are actually pink or rosé wines. Aromatically simple, ‘White Zin’ generally exhibits fragrant aromas of red fruits, reminiscent of strawberry or ripe raspberry. As explained above, the fermentation is stopped before it is finished, thus giving a medium-sweet wine (between 30 and 50 grams of residual sugars per litre) with a relatively low alcohol content (between 8% and 10%). Though wine snobs like me may look down on this straightforward, one-dimensional, childish wine, I still think that this is a good product to recommend to someone who never drank wine before, especially if he/she tends to like sweet beverages. It’s the equivalent of Moscato d’Asti for rosé wines!
Made as a ‘proper’ red wine, depending on the grapes’ maturity level at harvest, Zinfandel can be shaped into both a pale-coloured wine exhibiting ripe red fruits (strawberry, red cherry) and pungent spices (black pepper), or an opaque wine with intense black (boysenberry) and dried fruits (prune, date), intertwined with sweet spices reminiscent of cloves and liquorice. The common features of these wines are a slightly off-dry and spirity mouthfeel, with medium to low tannins coated by an opulent texture. The riper versions show affinity with oak, both French and American, and will therefore tend to exhibit intense aromas of vanilla or coconut.
Although you’ll only read ‘Zinfandel’ on the labels, many of them will be blended with other grape varieties. Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards adds 10% to 15% of Petite Syrah to his Zinfandels to enhance colour and tannins structure, and it seems that many producers follow this recipe. However, many blends find their origin directly in the field: many old vineyards are actually planted with a mix of Zinfandel and various random varieties. For instance, Ranvenswood’s Old Hill Vineyard is made up of 26 different grape varieties, Zinfandel accounting for approximately 75% of the plantings.
Zinfandel wines are greatly influenced by the grape’s ripeness level at harvest, the vines’ age, the vineyard’s exposure, the winemaking decisions, etc., and it is thus extremely delicate to summarize regional characteristics without falling into over-simplistic generalisation. Still, many books and online sources have drawn a rough picture outlining the aromatic and structural components one could expect from Zindandel wines made in various Californian regions. Here is a sum-up of these descriptions, to be considered with caution:
Dry Creek Valley: This sub-region of Sonoma (famous wine producing region situated between the Napa Valley and the Pacific Ocean) is often described as the reference for high quality Zinfandel. The wines produced tend to be aromatic with intense red fruit flavours and a distinct peppery character.
Russian River Valley: Also situated in Sonoma, this region is cooler than Dry Creek River, thus producing spicy wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol.
Napa Valley: ‘Concentration’ is the recurrent word among the descriptions of Napa Valley Zinfandels. These intense wines will often boast pronounced black fruits aromas and flavours, structured by firmer tannins than in Sonoma. Besides, new-oak-derived spices tend to be more widespread.
Lodi: Situated on the East of the San Francisco bay, this relatively hot region nests many of California’s oldest vines, and produces one third of the State’s Zinfandel. The wines here are considered to be the fleshiest, with jammy and chocolaty flavours.
Paso Robles: The wines produced in this region, located between San Francisco and San Diego, are the most floral of all (violet, roses).
Although in terms of notoriety Zinfandel is far behind Cabernet Sauvignon in China, I do think that it is a great recommendation for new consumers experiencing wine for the first time, and I am not necessarily referring to White Zinfandel here. Even in the high quality red Zinfandels, the sweet jammy fruit, soft round tannins and generous texture are characteristics which make Zinfandel a very approachable and friendly wine to most people. So if you didn’t manage to convert your family to the pleasures of wine during the Chinese New Year’s Eve diner, next time try again with a bottle of ‘Zin’!
This article was published on Decanterchina.com in July 2016