American Zinfandel

The zinfandels in America are often called America's grape because no place in Europe produces a wine by that name. However, in the late 1990s DNA testing revealed that zinfandel is the same as the Italian grape primitivo. Further DNA testing revealed that zinfandel (primitivo) is closely related to the grape plavac mali and probably originated on the Dalmantian Coast of Croatia. In addition, zinfandel belongs to the European species vinifera, as do the other red grapes cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir. Even if zinfandel is not an indigenous American variety, it does have a long history in California.

For decades, zinfandel was the most widely planted red grape in California, until cabernet sauvignon surpassed it in 1998. Red zinfandel vineyards are some of the oldest in California. These old vines, which are gnarled and twisted, have low productivity but can make wines of amazing richness and depth. Though the term "old vines" has no legal definition, if you see it on a label it generally signifies that the wine came from vineyards in continual production for at least 40 years and sometimes more than a hundred. There is one vineyard that may have been planted in 1866.

Zinfandel is a mouth-filling dry red wine with jammy blackberry, boysenberry and plumy fruit. Made in the traditional style, it can be thick, chewy and higher in alcohol than some other red wines. It is a hearty, rustic red wine with a peppery, earthy character that compliments barbequed beef.

In 1972, Sutter Home made the first "white zinfandel," actually light pink, by quickly removing zinfandel's red skins before much color was imparted to the wine. Today, white zinfandel outsells true (red) zinfandel. It is slightly sweet, is almost always mass-produced from less than top-quality grapes, and is considered a beginner's wine.

Zinfandel is a variety through which the earth speaks most compellingly. Some are big and meaty, others are soft and graceful but they share a sensual richness of flavor that can be irresistible.

Durella DeGrasse
Certified Wine Professional

Return to Marilee's Washington Wine page