The A-Z of Red Zinfandel: A Guide to America’s Famous Grape

When it comes to classic American vinos, there’s one red wine varietal that comes to mind: the California Zinfandel. This multi-purpose fruity red is considered a key player in the American wine trade. Covering over 10% of California’s total vine area, this black-skinned grape is one of the most widely grown wine varieties in the United States.

Its heavy presence in the local wine scene has led many to believe that the grape is an American original. People also believed that it has  only spread to other wine regions in the latter parts of the 20th century. But recent studies and DNA findings seem to indicate otherwise.

Tracing the Origins of Zinfandel

Despite being predominantly grown in the United States, Zinfandel is believed to have originated further east in the Caucasus region. Based on archaeological evidence, the early settlers of the land bordering Europe and Asia started cultivating this vitis vinifera sometime before 6,000 BCE.

Upon discovering its winemaking potential, farmers from neighboring regions began acquiring and replanting the grape, until it became a fixture in the Mediterranean landscape. Scientists have found numerous indigenous varieties of the vine in Croatia. This has led to the prevailing theory that Zinfandel first experienced widespread cultivation in the Eastern European territory.

Sometime in the early 18th century, the grape was introduced to the Apulia region in Southern Italy. According to historical records, the varietal was brought to the country by an Italian priest named Don Francesco Filippo Indelicatti. He planted the vine in Liponti. Noticing its early maturation, the priest decided to call the variety, Primitivo, which means ‘the first one.’

Toward the mid-19th century, cuttings of the varietal were sent to George Gibbs living in the United States. Gibbs, a fervent horticulturist, received the vines sometime between 1820 and 1829. In 1830, he brought the grafts with him to Boston and soon after, Samuel Perkins, a merchant from the city, began selling wine called “Zenfendal.” Gibbs is also thought to have gifted leading American horticulturist, William Robert Prince, with samples of the European vine.

When the 1850s rolled in, gold fever gripped the country. Many nurserymen, including Prince and Frederick Macondray, rushed to California to join in the gold rush. The latter carried with him cuttings of Zinfandel, which he supplied to Joseph W. Osborne of Oak Knoll Vineyard. In 1857, Osborne produced Zinfandel wine, which was well-received by the region’s early critics. By the end of the century, the vine had become a staple in vineyards throughout California.

While the grape flourished in the United States, the phylloxera epidemic was busy eradicating most of Croatia’s indigenous Zinfandel vines. Out of the many varieties in the country, only nine survived, including Tribidrag and Crljenak Kaštelanski. By the 1920s, California’s vineyards were also in danger of being wiped out but this time by rot and the early stages of the Great Depression. Because Zinfandels were susceptible to viticultural hazards, winemakers found it difficult to keep up with the expenses needed to sustain the vines. Entire plots of old Zinfandels were replaced with hardier varietals like Alicante Bouschet. Slowly but surely, the great ‘American grape’  faded into obscurity, and was all but forgotten for the next 40 years.

The Rebirth: How Zinfandel Resurfaced as California’s Super Grape

It took one unnamed British wine critic to revive interest in the grape. In 1972, the writer spoke at length about a fantastic California wine called Zinfandel. That same year, Sutter Home Winery’s Bob Trinchero also released a ‘white’ wine that  took the local wine scene by storm—the White Zinfandel. The medium-sweet and fragrant rosé helped propel Zin to new heights. With the grape’s burgeoning fame came the grandiose claims of local wine experts that the vine was all-American and grown only in California.

These assertions were refuted after the results of Professor Austin Goheen’s study became public. Through DNA testing, Professor Goheen and his UCD research team discovered that Primitivo and Zinfandel were genetically identical. In the late 1990s, the European Union (EU) made it official declaring the grapes to be ‘synonymous with each other.’

These days, Primitivo/Zinfandels are grown in over 71,000 acres worldwide and most of its plantings are still found in Italy, the United States, and Croatia. But  New World wine regions like Australia and South Africa have also started incorporating the grape in their vineyards.

Zinfandel Flavor Profile

Zinfandel is an extremely versatile wine variety. Its adaptable nature makes it an ideal grape for rosé, light red, full-bodied red, late harvest, and fortified wine production. When made as a varietal, its flavors can be made sweet and fruity to spicy and peppery depending on the grape’s ripeness. Though lighter in color compared to Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine is just as big in flavor. Its elevated sugar levels also mean higher alcohol content, with usual ABV ranging  from 14%-17%.

Common fruit flavors associated with the vino include blueberry, cherry, blackberry and plum. That’s not the end of it.  It has can also offer flavors of  boysenberry, blackcurrant, raspberry, fig, apricot, brambly fruit, jam, and raisin. When on the piquant side of the spectrum, the vino exhibits bold notes of black pepper, herbs, anise, licorice, and tobacco smoke. Oak aging are also used to incorporate other aromas to the tipple. Think scrumptious scents of mocha, vanilla, espresso, caramel, coconut, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Now, to tie in all these flavor facets, Zins rely on their bright acidity levels and healthy tannin content. These elements help balance the wine’s textures and tastes while adding length to its finish.

Though young vines can produce vinos of great character, the very best Zins come from older cultivations. Varietals produced from old vines, aged 50 years or more, tend to produce more robust and intensely flavored wines. Due to their exemplary quality, these tipples are priced higher—at least US$30 per bottle.

Regional Differences

In general, Zins grown in warmer conditions have more peppery and black fruit notes. While tipples hailing from colder areas are chock-full of red fruit flavors like raspberry and cranberry. Now, beyond climate, other factors affect the wine’s flavors such as vineyard conditions and the dominant winemaking style in the region. In Italy, for example, earthy and forest berry-driven is the way to go so the wines in the country tend to be rustic in style. They’re also high in alcohol, with average ABVs going up to 16%.

As for Californian Zinfandels, these tend to vary in flavor and texture depending on the vineyard’s location. California is the third largest state in the United States. At over 100 million acres in size, its terroirs fluctuate greatly from one viticultural area to another.  Zinfandels from the state range from brambly and juicy to savory and intense.

In Amador, for example, you’ll find robust and jammy Zins teeming with sweet blackberry flavors. While Napa Valley Zinfandels are a mix of raspberry and plum notes with hints of cedar and vanilla aromas. As for the offerings of Sonoma County, expect crisp, peppery wines with touches of anise and blackberry on the palate.

Food Pairing

Zinfandels lean toward the sweeter side of the wine spectrum. Its saccharine qualities make it an ideal pairing for spice-laden and savory dishes. From spit-roasted lamb to chicken curry, roasted quail on a bed of caramelized onions to Cajun ribeye, this is a wine that goes well with a plethora of flavorful meaty fares. Try it with American fast food favorites like pizza, barbecue bacon burger, grilled steak, and even a slice of dark chocolate molten lava cake.

Bottle Aging Potential

There’s a common misconception that Zinfandel is the rare red wine that can’t age. It’s a belief that comes with the way the wine mellows over time. With most of its fine wines having a shelf life of 2-5 years in your wine cellar, its general aging potential is a bit more limited than other fuller-bodied reds. But we’ve found that there are some Zins with tremendous aging potential. Take, for example, the offerings from Dry Creek Vineyards. The best wines from the estate can age for up to 40 years! Now, that’s what we call staying power.

Recommended Brands and Vintages

2013 Robert Biale R.W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel. When it comes to longevity, this tipple trumps the other Zins in our list. Designed to be kept in the wine cellar for up to 2023, this dense and peppery vino is one that’s full of promise. Its rich structure belies its elegant style. Crisp notes of bing cherries, brambly blackberries, cinnamon, and spice combine for a vibrant and complex flavor profile. Very nice, long finish.

2013 Pulchella Mercenary Reserve 25 Zinfandel. With its myriad of flavors, ranging from spearmint to blackcurrant, chocolate to black pepper, licorice to blackberry, this Zin is a study in flavor equilibrium. Its supple, sensual, and lush mouthfeel will have you licking your chops and begging for more.

2012 Tres Sabores Zinfandel. Soft on the palate but packing powerful flavors, this Zinfandel balances effortlessly on the tightrope between power and finesse. Its black pepper and cedar undertones are offset beautifully by a dose of blackberry and cherry flavors. Very delectable and definitely worth a rack in your wine cellar.