Question from Emily: How come Zinfandel is sometimes red and sometimes pink? How do you know what you’re getting?
A: Thanks for writing, Emily! This is confusing to a lot of people.
The red and pink wine are both made of the same grape, Zinfandel. It’s a dark-skinned grape and the beauty of dark varieties is that their juice nearly always runs clear, making them very versatile. From white grapes we can only make white wine, but from dark varieties we can make red, white, rosé or blush (blush, by the way, seems to be sort of a trendy way to say rosé. Rosé got kind of a bad rap in the US, and is only now beginning to recover from it, so the term blush has been used to market light-colored rosé wine).
The process is simple. Crush the Zinfandel, skins, seeds, juice and all, into a fermentation tank and wait a little – not too long! After awhile you can drain out some very pretty looking pink juice. For a light rosé, drain early, for a deeper color drain later. After that, it’s pretty much treated like a white wine which, these days, means fermenting it at a low temperature in a stainless steel tank. Rosé is almost never barrel-aged because it’s best when it’s at young and fresh. The younger the better, really.
For red Zinfandel, ferment the juice and skins together until the wine is dry. Barrel aging is an excellent idea to get this sometimes rambunctious red wine to settle down a little.
While there’s nothing new about making rosé, it seems that the White Zinfandel craze was born of a serendipitous problem at a tiny little winery called Sutter Home back in the 70s. At that time their specialty was full-bodied, red Zin. They used an ancient technique, called saignee, of draining off a little juice early on to increase the skin-to-juice contact for the wine left in the tank, thereby making it more concentrated in flavor. They sold off the small quantities of the pale pink “White Zinfandel” drain wine, just in their tasting room. One year the drain wine didn’t seem to want to ferment to dryness, so they bottled it a little sweet that year. Guess what – right wine at the right time – Sutter Home grew from being a little farmhouse of a winery, making 220 cases of White Zin in 1972, to producing over 3 million cases by 1990! And, they have been very generous in spreading the wealth to numerous charities throughout the Napa Valley community.
For those of you who turn up your nose at White Zinfandel, keep in mind that if it hadn’t become so popular when it did, there wouldn’t be much in the way of old-vine Zin around for us to enjoy these days. Red Zin fell out of favor in the 70s and if White Zin hadn’t been all the rage, acres and acres of Zinfandel vines would have been bulldozed.
Quel digression! Keyboard mania! Coming back to the wines, they don’t really resemble one another very much at all. White Zin is usually light in body, relatively low in alcohol, refreshing and often a little sweet. Red Zin is typically dry, and quite robust in color, flavor and alcohol – a wonderful tour-de-force of fruit and spice.
When you’re ordering wine, a good rule of thumb is that if the menu says “Zinfandel”, it’s probably a dry red wine. If it says “White Zinfandel” then you know to expect something that might taste pretty good by the pool. Incidentally, if the label simply says “blush” or “rosé” without stating a grape variety, it’s probably a blend of several varieties.
I hope that helps! Cheers! Nancy