If there is any grape that we can claim as truly American, it is Zinfandel. This big, berry driven, spicy and heady wine captures the American spirit perhaps better than any other grape. Without question, the best Zinfandel in the world hails from our West Coast. Nothing pairs with classic American barbeque like it. Yep, Zinfandel is a truly American original. Well, except that it’s real name isn’t really Zinfandel and Croatia’s been growing it for centuries.
Obviously there is some explaining to do.
Like many grapes we grow in the U.S., Zinfandel is an immigrant originally brought from Vienna in the early 1800s. Its affinity for our climate made it a favorite of growers almost overnight, especially in northern California. Until recently Zinfandel’s success here, it was a relative unknown. Relatively recently researchers noticed it’s similarity to Italian Primitivo, going so far to say it was genetically identical. Primitivo was introduced in Italy after Zinfandel to America. So where did Primitivo come from?
Eventually, more research led them back to Croatia and a grape called Crljenak Kaštelanski. This is what we know as Zinfandel. The mystery was solved. Let the author be the first to tell you that there will not be a rush to rename Zinfandel Crljenak Kaštelanski. Zinfandel, or Zin as it is lovingly known, is here to stay. It might not be an American original, but we’ve managed to elevate it to a new level and that in itself makes it is de facto American.
Zinfandel loves the heat and will handle the cold better than most grapes. A single vine can live well past 100 years, still producing high quality fruit. Most wines made from these ancient vines are often labeled “Old Vine,” although there’s disagreement as to whether the wines are actually any better than younger vine wine. In the extreme temperatures of Paso Robles, the wines can build natural alcohols of more than 17 percent
Down here, there seems to be a contest as to who can make the biggest, baddest wine. My advice is to make sure you have a safe ride home when you break into one of these monsters. A toothbrush isn’t a bad idea either. In the cooler climates of Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, the wines give up some alcohol and extract for a darker, spicier wine with a bit more acid structure. One will find Zinfandel growing all along the West Coast and various other states. The styles range anywhere in between the aforementioned, but the universal theme of fruit driven and fun shows through.
The intense love of this grape spawned tasting groups and associations completely focused on this varietal. Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (Z.A.P.) is the most well known, holding regular symposiums and tastings across the country. It is a wondrous mix of industry professionals and consumers all dedicated to promoting and preserving this lovable grape. Our fascination with Zinfandel is truly a unique phenomenon in the world of wine. This is a testament to its accessibility and pure pleasure. Most are reasonably priced and require no decanting or special treatment. Grab a bottle, pull the cork and get the party started.