Zinfandel is California’s heritage variety. Unquestionably, it had been in California since the 1850s. Therefore it had really been adopted by California. So it’s no surprise that Zin was actually the most planted grape in California in the 1880s. Now Zinfandel is the third most planted grape. Cabernet Sauvignon is the second and Chardonnay is the number one. But Chardonnay isn’t a red grape variety so let’s go forward.

History of Zins

Zinfandel is a very ancient variety in fact. Californian wineries are pretty sure that the clone of Zinfandel came from Croatia through Italy. Zinfandel is indigenous to Croatia, so it’s no doubt that Zinfandel is really the most European variety. According to genetic testing, this amazing terroir-based grape is a clone of Tribidrag and Primitivo.

Zin traveled to the southern region of Italy, Puglia, in the 1700s. There it became known as Primitivo. In the following century, it would come to America, arrived in the U.S. in the 1820s. By the 1850s the grape had made its way to California. Where to this day the majority of its worldwide plantings and the overwhelming majority of its American plantings are. Majority plantings are located in San Joaquin County and Lodi AVA.

Italy follows the U.S. in terms of total acres planted but Puglia which contains almost all of Italy’s plantings has more acres plant to the grape than even the San Joaquin County.

The European Union recognizes the identity of these grapes and allows Zinfandel and Primitivo to be used as synonyms for the same grape. However, in the United States wine made from grapes grown from cuttings that originated in Italy as Primitivo must be labeled that way and not as Zinfandel.
Moreover, you can see a lot of California Zins labeled as old wine or even ancient wine. It means high-quality grapes from older vines. Just keep in mind that old and ancient wines are unregulated terms and it would be helpful for the wine-producer to specify an age for the wines.

Wine characteristic

The fruit profile of the wine will vary depending on the ripeness of the grapes at harvest. It will run across a spectrum from strawberry and less ripe grapes to cherry and then blackberry in very ripe grapes. More savory notes will include black pepper and aromatic spices like cardamom. Zinfandel’s made from very ripe grapes will often be described as having a particularly deep and intense fruit character. These wines are so-called “jammy”. Its tannins are usually very firm and range in intensity from moderate to ripe.

Food pairing

Zins tend to be big complex wines, high in alcohol and acidity. Great pair for dishes that are sauced with rich, complex sauces with a lot of condiments. So Zen has become a real go-to over the years for dishes like burgers and barbecue. However, you can pair it with a much more sophisticated fare as well.

Two glasses of Zinfandel
Photo credit: Chirobocea Nicu