No grape must’ve backpacked, and struggled to prove its identity, as much as Zinfandel has. Croatia, Italy, and California have continuously claimed its birth in their vineyards. But, undoubtedly it’s its long-lived love story with the Californian land that’s been the most cherished. Even amongst all the New World lands and varietal pairings, these two have been as successful a couple as Australia and Shiraz and New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc are. From being a cash-crop to becoming a beloved rose of choice in America, to cashing on some exquisite and collectable drops, Zinfandel has seen its share of glory. And while some believe that the journey has been more tale-worthy than the wines it yield, the jury is split.
Zinfandel and history have played hide and seek for years and kept many debating. The longest tiff stood between California and Puglia (Southern Italy) for over a century and a half, both claiming stakes at its origin. Americans, known for often speaking more than they know, even claimed that the vine reached Puglia amidst other cargo while the Italian immigrants were returning to base in the 1860s from the American shores. However, these claims were easily rubbished on two very solid grounds. Firstly, the varietal is a Vitis Vinifera produce, a genus of vines that America never had, only Europe did. And secondly, there are documented evidences indicating that the grape came to Puglia in early 18th Century from the Dalmatian coasts, now a part of Croatia. Owing to its early ripening attributes, the varietal was called Prima Vitis by the Latins which eventually turned to Primativo, still the primary grape of the region. Even with such concrete sources, America didn’t soften their stance and stuck to their claim. It was only in the 1990s, thanks to DNA profiling, that it was proven that the varietal was identical to near-extinct Croatian Crljenak Kastelanski, red varietal from the island of Kastelna, thus questioning the very foundation of this ongoing debate. So how did it reach America then?
Studies prove that the vine was imported to the US in 1829 by George Gibbs from Austrian nurseries. It is believed that the grape received its name due to a severe case of Chinese whispers. Some believe that the varietal was confused with an Austrian native ‘Zierfandler’, and thus the name, but that can be questioned too as it’s a famed white varietal. However, due to the paucity of any other nearly-believable story, we’ve settled for this one unless new claims are made. On its way from Long Island, where it was first brought in, to California, the grape was also called Zenfendel and Zinfandal. Farmers patriotism never allowed them to called it by its Italian or Croatian names.
Since its arrival in the late 1820s, it had its own value and glamour amongst viticulturists. It wasn’t famed for its wines initially and was looked upon as just another black varietal in the mix. They would plant it in the driest, warmest, and the least water-retaining parcels as the better ones were secured for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It was this innocent ignorance that worked in their favour though as it loved such conditions. Being a heat-lover, at times demanding even more sunshine hours than Cabernet Sauvignon, it flourished and provided an approachable, fruit-forward, and dense wine satiating all the attributes on the good-wine-checklist. Its craze only grew, peeking in 1849 during the Gold Rush. Zinfandel is a high-yielding grape, providing a consistently quantitative harvest, fetching easy bucks for the producer. This is exactly what was required during that era, a simple formula for success. It soon became their favourite varietal. Some even rejoiced claiming that California had its own Claret now, a simple medium-dry fruity red, rivalling the French. The craze was so hot that even during Prohibition it was the choicest red for home wine production.
With all such glory, why isn’t it as pricey as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot? The varietal has its share of problems too. Genetically, the vine is highly vigorous and tend to easily over-produce. This leads to severely jammy wines. Thus to curb this, regular and serious pruning is required. It’s a backbreaking exercise and costly too, thanks to the magnitude of human-intervention required. Even with that done, it further suffers from uneven ripeness, featuring green, ripe, and raisinated grapes in the same bunch. This makes rigorous and meticulous sorting at the winery a must. Given such care and constant attention it’s not surprising that Zinfandel lost its top spot to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
THE PRECIOUS DROPS
With Zinfandel, crop picking time is crucial and defines how the wine will be. Pick it a little early and the wine will be bursting with luscious strawberry, raspberry, and sweet cherry flavours. If picked a little later, the red fruit will give way to darker and heavier fruit like blackberries, bitter cherries, and peppery spiciness. Leave it to ripen further and you’ll have a dark dense liquid marred with prunes, dates, and dark fruit jamminess. Having said that, one must acknowledge the magical genius of Paul Draper, winemaker at the famed Ridge Vineyards winery, the man who deciphered Zinfandel like nobody else could. He says there’s nothing called an overripe Zinfandel. His idea is to let the Zinfandel ripen to 101% and let the greens balance the raisins and the ripened ones lead with maturity and seriousness, and let the grape itself define the complexity and depth of the wine.
There are various avatars of Zinfandel allowing the winemaker to play around with the liquid. A quick run-off of juices and you’ll have a faint rosé wine with a fruity accent and crisp acidity aka White Zinfandel. Leave a touch of residual sugar with a purple-hued tone and it’ll be a pleasing ‘Blush Zinfandel’. Cluster-ferment it and an aromatic playfully fruity-floral wine will be achieved. Let it settle for a long maceration period and the depth of chewy tannins, nearly-opaque colour, and fragrant sweet-and-spicy American oak will balance the heat of pepperiness from the varietal. Some producers even have tried their hands at over-ripening the entire bunch and making sweet wines, reaching 16% alcohol by volume, without fortification, and with generous dollops of sugar still unfermented.
TERRIOR AND STYLES
Between the prized Cabernet and Zinfandel, it’s the latter that shows terroir more evidently. Though during the daylight it enjoys the sun’s blaze, however it’s best if coupled with cooling nights and aid in retaining its acidity. Sonoma County plays home to two of the best sites for Zinfandel in the country. Dry Creek, enjoying the ocean’s diurnal effect offers this attribute and is thus considered the best site. The neighbouring Alexander Valley is good too albeit the magnitude of day and night temperature being considerably lesser. Russian River and Santa Cruz do host the varietal and produce some excellent drops but it is still the Dry Creek valley that claims the gold. Even clear distinctions between sites and their produce, Single Vineyard Zinfandels are rare to find. They’ll always be a field blend with crops sourced from a mix of parcels than just one site. May be that is owing to its ripeness concerns or just to bring in multiple attributes together to make a complex blend.
Notable Producers – Ridge Vineyards, Renwood, Ravenswood, and DeLoach
OLD VINES MYTH
Given its continuous success in the Californian fields, Zinfandel vines boasts an average age of 50 years or more. The yield drops considerably and given the vogue of their time of planting, often they’re bush trained. Having ‘Old Vines’ Zinfandel on the shelves is easy. It is not a controlled term and means nothing, thus allows any one to put it on the label. While most countries would work with the idea of ‘Old Vines’ wines coming from a certain age bracket, in Zinfandel context, Old Vines is only indicative. Rather than the age, it represents the older style of growing the vines on those dry, arid, rough, and hillside slopes, thus eliminating the very idea of yield, concentration, or anything else. This distinct way of growing vines resulted in a distinct character due to slow ripened and more layered flavour, not concentration and/or complexity.
REST OF THE WORLD
While Puglia is still a claimant of the varietal, its the deep and rustic Primitivo di Manduria DOC and Primitivo de Gioia DOC wines that holds the flags. it has its own takes but they’d rarely challenge the sharpness and complexity of Californian examples.
Australia’s Margaret River homes some Zinfandel too in its Margaret River and South Australian Zone. These wines are notably balanced and can be supple, especially owing their affinity to American oak usage.
South Africa has produced some worthy drops too, thanks to its warm lands and ocean influences. Though the persistent climate change and problems of their wines being a tad boozy, they often blend their Zinfandels with some Cinsault and Carignan to tame the alcohol down to 15-16%, which still is quite warm.
Italy – Maseeria Pepe, Sinfarosa
Australia – Cape Mentelle, Nepenthe
South Africa – Fairview, Blaauwklippen
So, Croatian, Italian or Californian, the origins are clear, as is the travel route it traced. Yet the debate remains, which expression showcases its best shade and who should take the trophy home? Without a doubt, the glory belongs to California. Even with baseless claims and stories regarding its origins, nomenclature, and misguided use of ‘Old Vines’ on the label, no country has ever brought fame and prestige to the varietal as the Americans have. From Carole Meredith at University of California at Davis (UCD) mapping its origin, to Bob Trinchero creating Blush Zinfandel at Sutter Home, and Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards mastering the varietal handling, Americans have done more for the varietal and its wines than the rest of the world put together. And till they have their passions high and adore the varietal, our copas will be filled with their reward of love and labour.