As ever, the truth is a little more complicated. The DNA fingerprinting that confirmed the connection between Zinfandel and Primitivo also showed that the two are actually non-identical twins, and that neither originates from Italy. Furthermore, despite the clear similarities between the two grapes, the wines taste distinctly different: Zinfandel remains very much its own Californian thing, as winemakers firmly appreciate.
how did Zinfandel end up in California?There's still a lot of speculation about the origins and etymology of Zinfandel, and many of the discoveries about where it came from have only emerged in the last twenty years. But a narrative has emerged: in the 1820s, an American called George Gibbs imported cuttings from Europe and one of the varieties was probably what we now call Zinfandel - called Zanfandel and Zinfindel in New England (Zinfandel's name may be because the grape was misidentified as being called Tzinifándli, which is actually an obscure Hungarian white grape). He took it to Boston, where it was grown in greenhouses and used as a table grape. It's difficult to think of a climate less suitable to Zinfandel than cool, wintery New England. Rightly overlooked as a table grape, Zinfandel crossed continental America during the Gold Rush, settling in the Sierra Foothills where gold was first discovered and then around San Francisco. This is what I love about Zinfandel: its history in California begins at the same point that California's own history begins, with the influx of American and European immigrants into the state in search of sunshine and gold.
After its arrival in Napa and Sonoma in the 1850s, Zinfandel quickly became the most planted grape in California. The wines, though, were not the single-varietal wines Americans are now most familiar with; instead, the wines were field blends, made from a number of varieties planted in the same vineyard. Most important in these blends were Petite Sirah, still an important blending grape in Zinfandel wines, Carignan, and inferior varieties such as Alicante Bouschet. Some wineries still make these field blends: Acorn in Sonoma make a wine from over 60 varieties, while Ridge, one of California's greatest wineries, make some of the state's best Zinfandel from old-vine field blends.
so where did it come from?Mike Grgich is one of California's most important winemakers, emigrating to the US from Croatia in the 1950s. Upon seeing and tasting Zinfandel, he immediately thought that it was the same as a Croatian grape he had grown up with called Plavac Mali. When it was discovered that Zinfandel and Primitivo were both clones of a different variety, he and others urged UC Davis researchers to see if he was right: they found that Plavac Mali was actually an off-spring of Zinfandel. Encouraged by that connection, they tested other Croatian grape varieties and found one that was both identical to Zinfandel and indigenous to Croatia: Crljenak Kaštelanski. At the time, in 2001, there were just nine vines of the variety left in Croatia, all growing wild. It really is very impressive that Grgich was able to identify the Croatian background of California's most individual grape, and that the researchers were able to find the Crljenak Kaštelanski variety before it went completely extinct.
the twentieth century, lest we forgetOld-Vine Zinfandel is now a term much seen on wine labels, first used in the late 1960s. There are many plantings throughout California, dating back to the 1880s particularly in Lodi and Sonoma, and it's amazing that these plantings still exist. California was hit by phylloxera in the 1890s, and then Prohibition. Vines of all varieties were ripped up in the 1920s, and replaced by Alicante Bouschet, a dark, intense, simple variety that home winemakers could make easily and claim to be wine.
After Prohibition and the Second World War, California slowly began to rebuild its wine industry, but Zinfandel was not the focus of that renaissance. It was seen as too old-fashioned, simple, and rustic, and French grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon were preferred for the higher-quality wines that were redefining California's reputation around the world. As much as I abhor White Zinfandel, the popularity of that style in the 1980s allowed the old vines to survive. Zinfandel was then subject to another trend: hang-time, allowing the grapes to stay on the vine beyond normal ripening to maximise sugar levels and therefore alcohol. The strongest Zinfandel, a grape naturally high in alcohol, which I have tasted is 16.5%.
That's fortified wine. But California and Zinfandel don't care. Part of the 2005 EU-US trade agreement allowed California wines to label their wines above 15%, which is the legal cut-off point for wine in the EU. California creates its own rules, which the rest of the world is sometimes forced to follow.
where we are nowI've been here in California for 15 months now, and I've come to the firm conclusion that wines from Zinfandel are some of the most expressive that California has to offer. The alcohol in the wine is slowly getting into balance - 15% for Zinfandel is natural and balanced, if high - and the use of French and American oak adds structure. And the great strength of Zinfandel is the old vines; not that many places around the world have 130-year-old vines, which result in wines with an intense, concentrated joyfulness.
Zinfandel? or not Zinfandel?
Grgić Plavac Mali 2010 ($37)As it's made by Mike Grgich himself, it's not surprising that this was a much fruitier and more Californian wine than the Crljenak. Plavac Mali is the grape that Grgich thought was Zinfandel, and he now makes a varietal wine from his native Croatia. The alcohol likewise was at Zinfandel levels, of 14.8%. Nevertheless, the fruits still weren't quite as jammy, and were much blacker. The wine too wasn't as spicy as either the Crljenak or a typical Zinfandel. I liked this wine, but I felt it could have benefited from being a little more Croatian and a little less Californian, as it fell somewhere in between. ✪✪✪✪
The grape identified as the same as Zinfandel produced the wine most unlike it, while the two grapes which are closely related but slightly different were most like a California Zin. Which, ultimately, just goes to show that the climate, the soil, and the winemaker are just as important in how a wine tastes as the grape variety itself.