The first zinfandel vineyards were planted in California in the mid 1800s during the time of the gold rush. Brought by eastern European immigrants wanting to make sure they would have wine to drink, it is one of the oldest wine grape varieties in the US. Zinfandel (or zin) had the advantage of not needing a trellis system to thrive. Gnarled head pruned vines can still be found in the Sierra Foothills and a few other regions. Some of the vines date back over 100 years.
Prior to the mid 70’s zinfandel was produced primarily as a red wine. Ironically, it was the introduction of “white zinfandel” that saved the old vineyards from being ripped out as sales of red zinfandel fell when other varieties gained popularity. White zinfandel which accounts for 10% of US wine sales was discovered quite by accident. Sutter Home Winery, in the process of making a dry zinfandel rose’ experienced a “stuck fermentation” where the yeast died before the sugar was fully converted to alcohol. The winemaker liked the resulting sweet wine and the rest is history.
Red zinfandel is typically a big wine. To achieve the best flavor the grapes are allowed to ripen fully, increasing the amount of sugar in the berries. Most tip the scales at over 14.5% alcohol with some nearing 18%. The range of styles that can be found is greater than nearly every other variety.
The tasting notes for red zinfandel will vary depending on the climate it is grown. Cooler climate zin will offer notes of raspberry, cherry and plum. Warmer climates can create massive wines tasting of blackberry, prunes and pepper. Try the different styles for yourself and find the one you like best.
The best of the cool climate zinfandel can be found in the few remaining plantings in Napa and more predominantly in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The Sierra Foothills and Lodi offer some of the best of the “knock your socks off” warm climate style. Typically made to drink within five to ten years, most zinfandel does not benefit from long aging.
You are now fully armed to experience “California’s Grape”. Now get out there and Zin!