Zinfandel is Red

I had another one of those Zinfandel experiences the other day. I’m carrying on a conversation with someone about Zinfandel and suddenly they stop me mid-sentence and say, “you mean Zinfandel is a red wine? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; soft and sweet, white Zinfandel accounts for more than 10% (by volume) of all wine sold. The thing is, Zinfandel is a red-wine grape (technically white Zinfandel is a rose) that can produce big, complex red wines that are among the best red wines in the world. This column is about those wonderful, big red Zins.

Many look at Zinfandel [ZIHN-fuhn-dehl] as California’s native wine grape, since at one time it was thought to be indigenous. However, DNA testing has revealed that the Zinfandel grape is a descendant of the Primitivo grape, which has its roots in eastern Europe, and probably found its way to the United States via Italy. While clearly its descendant, Zinfandel is not genetically identical to Primitivo. In the United States these are considered two, distinct grape varieties and wines made from them must be labeled accordingly.

Zinfandel is thought to have been introduced to California during the Gold Rush, in the 1850s. It has thrived so well in the climate and soil that today, Zinfandel is the number two wine-grape variety grown in California. Zinfandel can produce hearty, robust red wines with rich berry and pepper flavors, and tannins, alcohol and complexity enough to rival Cabernet Sauvignon.

You will see the term “old vine” on a lot of Zinfandel labels. Older Zinfandel vines produce better wines than younger vines. You don’t have to have old vines to produce good Zinfandel, but apparently its considerably easier to produce good Zinfandel from old vines than from younger ones. The good news is that there are plenty of old Zinfandel vines in California. Many Zinfandel vines were maintained through the era of Prohibition and, having survived the phylloxera blight in California, Zinfandel now accounts for most of the old-vine stock in the state.

One of the characteristics of Zinfandel is that it is capable of producing wines with higher than average alcohol content, some higher than 15% (typical table wine is less than 13%). A principal point of contention among Zin makers and drinkers is whether or not higher alcohol is a good thing. On the one hand there are those who feel that great wines must have balance and that high alcohol upsets that balance. Then there are those who feel that high alcohol is natural to Zinfandel and that artificially reducing the alcohol content produces wine that does not represent the true nature of the grape. Personally, I agree with the latter, but some people find the higher alcohol off-putting.

One of the great things about Zinfandel is the wide variety of foods, including casual foods, than it can be enjoyed with. Zinfandel works with grilled, roasted or braised sausage, beef, lamb, pork and game. It also works with hearty tomato sauces, including BBQ sauces, and the chilies in Mexican and Thai cuisines. Zinfandel also goes well with burgers and pizza. And, lets not forget to try Zinfandel with dark chocolate. So, if you think Zinfandel is a white wine, think again.