Zinfandel: The Italian Myth is Busted

Zinfandel Vine

Zinfandel was long thought to have been imported from Italy (where it is called Primitivo) by a Californian winemaker in the late 1800s. This tale, created by a winemaker to market their wines, was accepted for so long that it passed as fact for almost a century. Historical records and genetic testing later proved that Zinfandel instead originated in modern-day Croatia and was, in fact, growing in California long before this supposed importation.

Unlike most grapes suitable for winemaking, Zinfandel is also suitable as a table grape. Horticulturalists in New England, on America’s east coast, imported the grape in the mid-1800s from the then Hungarian empire (which included the land now called Croatia). It was then cultivated at America’s first commercial nurseries on the east coast and successfully grown in greenhouses.

When the gold rush struck California in the late 1800s, New Englanders migrated to the West and took with them plant cuttings of all kinds, including the table grape known as “Zinfindal”. They planted crops widely and made their fortunes feeding the burgeoning population of miners. It wasn’t until much later, after it thrived in the West Coast sun, that Californians discovered this grape also makes great wine.

The appeal of Zinfandel as a table grape had a unique and unforeseen benefit. During Prohibition, when winemakers were forced to rip out their grapevines, they could keep their Zinfandel vines and sell the fruit fresh. This was a valuable source of income for struggling wineries. Even if the wineries didn’t survive Prohibition, the vines often did. When you hear a California winemaker talking about ancient vines, they’re probably talking about Zinfandel.

When you hear a California winemaker talking about ancient vines, they’re probably talking about Zinfandel.

Unlike the other primary grape varieties grown in California, there is no old world model for great Zinfandel. Winemakers growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon could look to Burgundy and Bordeaux for inspiration, but those growing Zinfandel had to figure it out on their own (Italy only recently started producing high quality Zinfandel). Winemakers perfected their styles over the course of a century and now California Zinfandel is the model for the varietal.

Zinfandel grapes have an uneven pattern of ripening, meaning that grapes within a bunch can vary widely in ripeness. As vintage approaches, it’s common to find bunches with green, unripe berries as well as ripe and overripe, shrivelled berries. Some wineries harvest bunches or even berries in multiple passes through the vineyard, but most just try to find the right balance of fruit ripeness. These differing ripeness levels contribute to a broad array of flavours and fruit ripeness in the wine, from tart acidic fruit to stewed fruit and Christmas pudding. Wines can lean toward underripe or overripe depending on when the grapes are harvested.

Zinfandel grows vigorously and produces juice with high sugar content. This allows alcohol levels in the wine to reach 16% while maintaining still some residual sugar. Ripe and jammy, it often also shows a brambly, earthy flavour and rich cocoa tannins. It pairs well with rich red meat dishes.

High quality red Zinfandel is not to be confused with white or blush Zinfandel — a sweet, pink, cheap wine made for the bulk wine market.

The varied geography of California means Zinfandel can be grown across the state and it’s now the third highest production grape by volume. Key regions known for great quality Zinfandel are Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, the Santa Cruz Mountains and parts of the Central Valley.