Many of us have called Zinfandel the California grape perhaps because, as far as we knew, it was only produced here and we couldn’t find its European counterpart. But, even so, we knew that it was unlikely to be native to America because it doesn’t have the appearance or growing habits of the native varieties. University of California at Davis did exhaustive research in cooperation with the University of Zagreb, and by now we’re quite certain that Zinfandel has its roots in Croatia and is the same as the Croatian variety Crljenak Kastenlanski. From Croatia it traveled to Puglia, in southern Italy where it’s called Primitivo, and to the US where we know it as Zinfandel. By now, Zin is planted in other states and in other parts of the world, but we still think of it as our special variety, if not our native son.
Before prohibition it was, by far, the most widely planted wine grape in California, likely because of its delightful, unabashed fruitiness and its adaptability. To this day, it’s grown all over the state, and seems to grow virtually anywhere, but most of us prefer the Zin that comes from warm, but not overly hot areas.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its challenges. It’s a thin-skinned grape, which is why the wine isn’t very tannic, but it also means that it doesn’t stand up to rain very well. That reconfirms California as an ideal home for it with our drought-like conditions. Another challenge is that the grapes within the cluster tend to ripen unevenly, which makes it difficult to decide when to harvest. It’s not uncommon to find little raisins tucked in with the plump grapes in the cluster which begins to explain why many examples pack a punch, in terms of alcohol. High sugar translates to high alcohol, so it takes careful monitoring and a little bit of luck to get the best results.
Zin often makes up 100% of the blend, but it partners nicely with other varieties, especially Petite Sirah and Carignane. Some of the oldest vineyards in California are not single-variety vineyards, but what are called field blends, which often include lots of Zin mixed with Petite Sirah, Carignane and Grenache, and maybe some Mourvedre or Alicante Bouschet. The Goosecross 2005 Zinfandel includes a bit of Primitivo, which is identical in terms of DNA, but shows sensory differences, probably due to clonal differentiation.
Zin is remarkably versatile at the table, perhaps because of the low tannins. It pairs well with a wide range of grilled foods from Ahi tuna to grilled tri-tip. It works well with tomato-based dishes, which is probably where it got its reputation as a pizza wine but that also translates to pasta dishes and preparations like chicken cacciatore. Medium-hard to hard cheeses are good partners for Zin. You can find delicious recipes to pair with Zinfandel or any other variety if you go to Colleen’s Kitchen.