However, rather like Australian Shiraz, its appeal is also its downside. If you don't want a wine whose alcohol approaches the levels of fortified wine, then avoid Zinfandel. If you don't want a fruit bomb, then give Zinfandel a miss. If you want a structured, balanced wine, then don't stop at the Zinfandel shelf.
My travels around California have confirmed some of those impressions, but also challenged them. It's still nearly always high in alcohol and Zinfandel wouldn't be Zinfandel without its jammy black and blue fruits, but I've discovered plenty of serious wines with structure, depth, and ageability. Maybe because I've come to the wines quite fresh, I've often preferred Napa Zins to Cab Sabs - they're certainly more affordable.
where's it from?The world came crashing in on the all-American grape in the 1990s when genetic fingerprinting proved that Zinfandel was the same grape as obscure, rustic Primitivo - rather like an American tycoon learning that they were descended from poor Italian immigrants...
It is, of course, impossible for Zinfandel to be an indigeneous American grape - all wine-producing vines are part of the vitis vinifera species which originates from Europe. Although Zinfandel was only known in California, it had to have come from Europe at some point. There are various theories about its origin, but the likelihood is that it was imported from Vienna by one George Gibbs late in the 1820s, making its way to California during the Gold Rush as Zinfandal. The grape itself doesn't originate from Italy, however, but Croatia. There's also a strong chance that Primitivo was imported into Italy by Italians returning home from California.
For all its genetic controversy, Zinfandel is now very much its own grape, grown in California for a hundred and fifty years, with nineteenth-century plantings still in use. During that time it's been soaked in California sunshine, reflecting the dry, dusty Californian terroir as well as time's changing fashions.
|Zinfandel in véraison, Calistoga|
what does it taste like?Due to its hardiness and popularity, Zinfandel is grown in areas that are too hot because it can cope with that heat and is overproduced because it has no problem providing high yields. That's where the image of Zinfandel as jammy and obvious comes from. The high alcohol has risen as the trend for rich, alcoholic wines has grown, although, as with other styles of wine in California, levels of alcohol are beginning to settle.
Whatever the style of Zinfandel, the black and blue fruits should be immediate, but serious examples of Zinfandel use American oak for up to two years, giving the wine real structure and balance, as well as adding a peppery spiciness.
There is also a phenomenon called White Zinfandel, which has further damaged the reputation of the grape if not producers' finances. Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home in Napa launched White Zinfandel in the 1970s and saw sales mushroom in the 80s; this resulted in increased plantings of the grape, which is one positive outcome. White Zinfandel is pink, sweet, and a tiny bit fizzy.
winesWithout doubt the greatest producer of Zinfandel in California is Ridge. Although they are based in Santa Cruz, their finest Zinfandels come from Lytton Springs and Geyserville in northern Sonoma. The best Napa and Sonoma Zinfandels come from high altitude areas that are hot during the day but cool at night, allowing the grape to ripen at a slow, steady pace. I haven't visited Ridge yet, but the Lytton Springs is one my favourite Californian wines, arguably besting even their own famous Cabernets. It's a great example of a big, powerful, unabashed wine that is still classically balanced. Here are some of the many Zinfandels I've tasted over the last two months.
|Nichelini, Chiles Valley|
Although Russian River Valley is best known for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, it produces intense Zinfandels from select slopes. Joseph Swan make several single-vineyards Zins. The last ever vintage from the Stellwagen vineyard, this is a fruity, savoury wine, with vanilla, anise, and roses and violets adding a refined elegance.
When visiting the Joseph Swan winery, I couldn't resist buying one of their Zinfandels from 2001, for just $35. This is the first mature Zinfandel I've tasted: the rich black fruits were there, but were more dried and overladen with leather and game. Although Joseph Swan wines are unusual and generally come into their own with a bit of age, this was proof that Zinfandel is ageworthy, and not just a young, fruity wine to be drunk straightaway.
I've been tasting Zinfandel throughout my visits to different California wineries - more than any grape, it grows successfully in most areas. I've already reviewed the following wines on previous blogs from Laura Michael, Lone Madrone, and Pomar Junction.
From being somewhat sceptical of Zinfandel upon my arrival in California, I now look forward to tasting each winery's style and I'm disappointed if one isn't made. It's produced in different ways, from fruity and fun to oaky and serious, and you're never quite sure what you're going to get. As ever in California, terroir is key: it's at its best in high areas with significant variations in temperature from day to night, and it reflects the dusty intensity of California's summer heat. Zinfandel has so won me over as an expression of California, that the Saddleback Zin is going to feature at my wedding next week alongside Chardonnay and Rioja. I can think of no greater compliment than that.