One of the wines I most enjoy educating others on is Zinfandel. I think the reason is either the fact that some still immediately think of white zinfandel (ughh) and others who have had the real deal have no appreciation for the unique history of this grape, and the truly American ways in which it is made today.
Let’s start with White Zinfandel, something a tour guide at Robert Mondavi once told me was “a crime to the grape”. First off, all grape juice is clear. Red wines get their color from contact with the grape skins after crushing and during fermentation. White Zinfandel was actually made by Sutter Home in the early 1970’s by complete mistake.
Winemaker Bob Trinchero was making a batch of what was supposed to be a dry rosé of zinfandel (with only a slight amount of skin contact to produce a pale rosé color) but the wine stopped fermenting, leaving residual sugars behind. He decided to take a risk, bottle it as was, and surprisingly it took off. So much so that by 1987 it was the top selling premium wine in the United States.
While great dry rosé has come back into fashion and grown tremendously in popularity, unfortunately when I ask someone if they like Zinfandel, they immediately think of the sweet accident that dominated the marketplace for generations.
What’s in a Name?
Zinfandel, and the typical field blends made from it, is the closest thing America has to its own native wine. Zinfandel, along with other varietals like Petite Sirah, Peloursin, Alicante Bouchet, Negrette, and dozens of other, even white grape varietals, were brought over and planted in droves in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by Italian immigrants to California. Each varietal in the field contributed its own characteristics to the final wine and the variety of grape types ensured something could be harvested regardless of the vintage. Some are early ripening, some do better with longer ripening times. By having an entire field of mixed varietals, winemakers could be sure that something would be ready to harvest when the time came to pick.
For years, conventional wisdom held that Zinfandel was the same grape as Primitivo, grown in the southern part of Italy, which does in fact taste quite similar. Through the work of grape geneticist Dr. Carole Meredith and counterparts at the University of Zagreb, the actual genetic match of Zinfandel was found across the Adriatic Sea. There in Croatia, an obscure varietal barely cultivated any longer and known locally as Crljenak Kaštelanski (sir le EN ak KASH te LAN ski) was found to be the true genetic twin of what we know as Zinfandel here in America. Primitivo, as it turns out, is actually another distinct offshoot from similar parents as Zinfandel.
Another ancient name found for this grape in the middle ages, was Tribidrag. Carole Meredith and her husband Steve Lagier actually bottle a zinfandel at their Lagier-Meredith winery which they label as Tribidrag in honor of her research findings. All of their wines are fantastic, including their specialty, a high elevation Northern Rhône style Syrah.
Old Vines, Great Wines
One of the distinctive traits of Zinfandel is its ability to become much more complex as the vines continue to age. While other wines can claim the same, they usually lose their punch at a certain point in life and are replanted to younger vines.
With Zinfandel, the older the vine, the less berries get produced, and what little fruit does result is concentrated and packed with flavors. Additionally, these old, head trained vines (as opposed to trellised in neat rows, the wines are left to grow wild and pruned into a goblet shape) have typically been dry farmed over the past century, with little irrigation. This forces the roots deep into the earth to find water.
On a visit to the famous Hayne Vineyard in 2016, the Chase family told me the roots of their old vines were 80 feet into the earth. Even in the droughts California has experienced in years past, these old ladies are able to consistently eek out a few bunches of fruit per vine that are of unparalleled quality anywhere else in the world.
To think that these vines have survived both Prohibition as well as the lure to rip out and replant with more lucrative and marketable Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot has a definite romanticism, and the resulting wines are like drinking a piece of American history.
What to Seek Out
There are several winemakers and vignerons in California who have dedicated themselves to protecting these heritage Californian sites, farming these vineyards and keeping their stories alive. Names that come immediately to mind include winemakers Mike Officer at Carlisle Winery, Teegan Passalacqua at Turley Wine Cellars, Morgan Twain-Peterson at Bedrock Wine Company, and Scot Bilbro at Limerick Lane.
Each offers their wines largely through mailing list only, and can take a year or two before you receive your first allocation. That said, these wines are typically $40-$50 a piece for some of the finest Zinfandel field blends….really the ONLY Zinfandel field blends, in the world. In a day and age where high end California Cabernet starts at $80 a bottle and goes up quickly from there, these represent a steal, and have a historical element that makes them so much fun to drink. I highly encourage you to get on these lists and give yourself the chance to purchase these wines.
If you’re in Pennsylvania and looking for widely distributed examples worth checking out in the state stores, look for bottlings from Ridge, Seghesio, Frank Family, Robert Biale, and Cline.