Get To Know A Grape: Zinfandel

Zinfandel (‘Zin’ for short) is widely known as the “American grape”, although it originated elsewhere. Most historians now agree that the grape’s roots are in Croatia and that it’s the same grape variety, at least genetically speaking, as Italy’s Primitivo.  Zinfandel was introduced in California as early as the 1800s and is currently the third most planted variety behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  

Zinfandel is planted pretty much everywhere in California, much of it in Lodi in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s also well established in Napa Valley, Sonoma -- particularly Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley – Paso Robles, and the Sierra Foothills.


The Zinfandel grape itself is dark-skinned but is made in to everything from dry red and rose wines to Port-like dessert wines and semi-sweet blush wines.  Styles range from light and sweet to in-your-face bold with overabundant alcohol. It’s the balanced, zesty, jammy, berry filled examples that are, thankfully, experience a bit of a resurgence today. Common aromas and flavors include berry, jam, pepper, spice, cherries, plums, licorice, and sometimes smoky bacon.  Oak ageing can add flavors such as vanilla, coconut, coffee, and cocoa.

The phenomenon known as “White Zinfandel” started out as an accident. The goal was to make a dry White Zinfandel (which is indeed made today, usually in the form of dry rose wine) but the fermentation got stuck before all the sugar was converted in to alcohol. The resulting wine, blush in color, easygoing, and sweet, became an 80’s sensation. While it is declining in popularity, White Zin is still a big seller in much of the Country.


Zinfandel is most often made in to a single variety wine. It does turn up, however, in red blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, and Syrah.  In Italy, Primitivo is frequently blended with another grape from Puglia called Negroamaro.


Red Zinfandel tends to pair well the hearty, spicy dishes such as BBQ or Indian food, although you really can't go wrong with a juicy burger. Savory dishes rich in spices like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon, including moussaka, lamb tagine, and sweet potatoes, all work well with hearty Zins. Cheese is a tougher pairing but hard cheeses with lots of flavor can provide a winning combination.  Even flavorful roasted vegetables or vegetable stews are a fitting match for Zinfandel.


2010 Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel Paso Robles ($21.99)

Peachy Canyon is a family winery in Paso Robles specializing in estate Zinfandels. This example is bright and balanced and, dare we say, elegant with fresh flavors of cherry and berry with smoke and cedar notes.

2013 Broc Cellars Vine Starr Zinfandel Sonoma ($29.99)

Chris Brockway, who makes his wines in Berkeley, CA, seems to coax out the brighter side of a grape and this Vine Starr Zin is no exception. The grapes are from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma and the wine is limited in production. Flavors of red and black fruit burst from the glass along with licorice and floral nuances.

2011 Branham Estate Zinfandel Rock Pile Vineyard Sonoma ($32.99)

Gary Branham started his eponymous brand in 1994 on his ranch in the Rockpile AVA in Sonoma. This Zinfandel is his signature wine and we became instant fans. Fresh and vibrant, the wine has a brambly, jammy quality to it with wild berries and a smoky edge.

Sean Thackrey Pleiades XXIII Old Vine Red Marine County ($25.99)

Sean Thackrey is an eclectic winemaker and farmer who makes his wines out of his home in Bolinas, CA. This is a blend versus a varietal Zinfandel -- and oh what a blend it is. Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and the list goes on. It's a red fruited wine the raspberries, cherries, spice, and many levels of flavor.



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