If there is a definitive American Grape, it is Californian Zinfandel. It has no home in Europe, and a combination of history, terroir and old fashioned American innovation has made it a striding industry with a character all to itself.
|Medium to full body, depending on tannins
Medium-high alcohol and acidity
|Black and red fruits – ripe blackberries, brambly black cherries, and jammy raspberry notes
Black pepper, spice
Occasional wild herbs
|Oak: vanilla, baking spices, and cedar
|Dried fruits such as figs and raisins
Leather, tobacco, and earthiness
Smooths tannins and acidity
Zinfandel, the American Dream Wine
The roots of Californian Zinfandel can be traced back to the early 1800s when it was introduced like so many grapes by European immigrants. The grape’s exact origins are debatable, but it is widely believed to be related to Primitivo in Italy or the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, also known as Tribidrag.
Zinfandel gained popularity during the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s. Miners enjoyed its robust character and adaptability to California’s climate. Vineyards sprang up throughout the state, with a particular concentration in the Sierra Foothills and the Central Valley. By the late 1800s Zinfandel was the most widely planted grape variety in California.
Evolution, set backs and innovation
Prohibition posed a significant challenge to the wine industry. Many vineyards were uprooted or converted to other crops. However, some “resourceful” winemakers continued to produce Zinfandel for sacramental and medicinal purposes, preserving the grape’s heritage, and from 1933 after Prohibition Zinfandel experienced a resurgence in popularity. The grape found its way into countless backyard vineyards and became a staple in California’s wine culture.
- Old vine Zinfandel, some dating back over a century, became a particular point of pride for California winemakers. These gnarled, low-yielding vines produce intensely flavored grapes that contribute to some of the state’s most sought-after Zinfandel wines.
- The concept of “terroir” gained prominence in Californian Zinfandel production, with winemakers experimenting with different soil types, microclimates, and vineyard practices to showcase the grape’s versatility. Single-vineyard Zinfandels, or “crus,” became highly prized for their distinct expressions of terroir.
Several regions emerged as Zinfandel strongholds, each with its unique characteristics and appellations. –
- Napa Valley, known for its world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, also boasts some outstanding Zinfandel vineyards.
- Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County became renowned for its Zinfandel, with many old vineyards producing exceptional wines. The Russian River Valley, Paso Robles, Lodi, and the Sierra Foothills all became recognized for their contributions to the Zinfandel landscape.
Winemakers had a 19th century history of producing a range of styles, from sweet, fortified Zinfandel wines to lighter, table wines. In the 1990s and early 2000s this innovation was built upon as producers started employing smaller oak barrel aging and stricter vineyard selection, resulting in wines of greater depth and finesse. This marked a turning point for Zinfandel, as winemakers and consumers alike began to appreciate the grape’s potential for crafting complex, age-worthy wines.
Another strength of this Californian staple is its ability blend with varieties like Syrah and Grenache, producing new wine profiles or styles associated with France’s Rhône Valley.
It remains a quintessential American wine, celebrated for its diverse range of styles, from the jammy and fruit-forward to the more elegant and structured.
Tasting Notes for Californian Zinfandel
Californian Zinfandel wines are known for their fuller body, higher alcohol and ripe fruit flavours, primarily blackberries and cherries with a touch of black pepper and spice.
- Body: medium to full body. Dry with moderate to medium-high alcohol and acidity. Tannins from younger vineyards can be softer, while old-vine Zinfandels are more pronounced and chewable
- Grape Flavours: Zinfandel can have black and red fruits – ripe blackberries, brambly black cherries, and jammy raspberry notes. Black pepper, spice, and sometimes wild herbs
- Winemaker interventions
- Oak: Oak aging is a common bringing vanilla, baking spices, and cedar
- Malolactic Conversion and Lees Aging and less common
- Aging: primary fruit flavours remain prominent, but new flavours of dried fruits such as figs and raisins plus leather, tobacco, and earthiness emerge. Aging also smoothens tannins and acidity
How Zinfandel compares
Californian Zinfandel varies significantly from other similar grapes found in regions like Italy (Primitivo) and Croatia (Crljenak Kaštelanski).
- Profile: Californian Zinfandel is known for its bold and fruit-forward character, with ripe blackberry, raspberry, and brambly cherry flavours. These wines often exhibit a rich, jammy texture with moderate to high alcohol levels and a hint of black pepper spice. Oak aging is common, contributing to additional layers of complexity with notes of vanilla and baking spices.
- Key Differences:
- Fruit Profile: Californian Zinfandel tends to showcase riper fruit flavors compared to Primitivo and Crljenak Kaštelanski, with a focus on intense blackberry and raspberry notes.
- Alcohol Content: Californian Zinfandel typically has higher alcohol levels, often exceeding 14%, contributing to its full-bodied and warm mouthfeel.
- Oak Influence: Oak aging is prevalent in Californian Zinfandel, adding flavors of vanilla and spice, which may be more pronounced compared to wines from Italy and Croatia.
Primitivo from Italy:
- Profile: Primitivo from Italy, particularly from the Apulia region, offers rich and robust wines with flavors of ripe black fruits, such as plum and black cherry, accompanied by hints of licorice and Mediterranean herbs. These wines often have moderate tannins, a medium to full body, and a velvety texture, with a slightly lower alcohol content compared to Californian Zinfandel.
- Key Differences:
- Terroir Influence: Primitivo wines reflect the unique terroir of southern Italy, showcasing flavors influenced by the Mediterranean climate and limestone-rich soils, which may impart distinct minerality and herbal notes.
- Tannin Structure: Primitivo wines tend to have softer, more approachable tannins compared to Californian Zinfandel, contributing to a smoother mouthfeel and a more elegant overall profile.
- Alcohol Level: While still robust, Primitivo wines generally have slightly lower alcohol levels than Californian Zinfandel, offering a balance between fruit intensity and alcohol warmth.
Crljenak Kaštelanski from Croatia:
- Profile: Crljenak Kaštelanski, believed to be the original genetic source of Zinfandel, produces wines with vibrant red fruit flavors, such as cherry and raspberry, complemented by subtle floral and herbal notes. These wines often have a lighter body and softer tannins compared to their Californian counterpart, with a refreshing acidity and a clean, bright finish.
- Key Differences:
- Fruit Expression: Crljenak Kaštelanski wines may exhibit a more delicate fruit profile compared to Californian Zinfandel, with emphasis on red fruit nuances and a lighter overall palate.
- Acidity: Wines from Croatia’s coastal regions, where Crljenak Kaštelanski is cultivated, often have a vibrant acidity that provides freshness and balance, contributing to a lively and refreshing drinking experience.
- Traditional Winemaking: Crljenak Kaštelanski may be produced using traditional winemaking methods, including minimal oak aging, allowing the purity of the fruit and terroir to shine through without the influence of heavy oak flavors.