What is Zinfandel?

Posted by Keith Wallace

Zinfandel: From Croatian Cliffs to Californian Vineyards

Zinfandel, or ‘Zin’ as it’s affectionately known, has long been celebrated as America’s grape. Its deep red hues and robust flavors have become synonymous with California’s sun-drenched vineyards. Yet, behind its American fame lies a tale that spans continents and centuries.

What is Zinfandel? It's in the glass!

A Grape Shrouded in Mystery

For decades, Zinfandel’s origins remained one of the wine world’s most tantalizing mysteries. While its prominence in the U.S. was undeniable, whispers of its foreign roots persisted. The 1960s saw academics embark on a quest to uncover this grape’s true lineage, a journey that would take them from the rolling hills of Italy to the rugged coastlines of Croatia.

In Italy, a grape named Primitivo caught the attention of Austin Goheen, a professor from the University of California at Davis. Its uncanny resemblance to Zinfandel was more than mere coincidence. DNA tests confirmed their genetic identity, but Italy was not Zin’s ancestral home. The plot thickened.

The Croatian Connection

As the 20th century progressed, murmurs of a Croatian grape, Plavac Mali, echoed through the halls of UC Davis. While not Zinfandel itself, DNA tests revealed it to be one of Zin’s parent grapes. The true Zinfandel, known in Croatia as Crljenak Kaštelanski or Tribidrag, was still waiting to be rediscovered.

The breakthrough came when researchers, after years of combing through ancient Croatian vineyards, stumbled upon the elusive Crljenak Kaštelanski. This grape, with a history dating back to the 15th century, was Zinfandel’s original identity.

Croatian Scenic Landscape During Sunset. Northwest Croatia. Adriatic Sea.

What is Zinfandel? A Tapestry of Flavors

Zinfandel’s journey from Croatian cliffs to Californian soils has given it a unique flavor profile. Its versatility is unmatched, producing everything from light rosés to full-bodied reds. Zin’s tasting notes paint a vivid picture: blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, complemented by earthy undertones. Depending on the oak treatment, hints of vanilla, cocoa, and caramel might also grace the palate.

While Zinfandel (aka Zin) and Primitivo share genetic roots, they’ve developed distinct personalities. Italian Primitivo, with its restrained and earthy profile, contrasts with the juicier, more robust Californian Zin.

A Legacy Preserved

Zin’s resilience is legendary. During Prohibition, when many vineyards faced ruin, Zin found refuge in backyards across America, preserving its legacy. Today, California’s “old vine” Zin vineyards, some with vines over a century old, are a testament to this grape’s enduring spirit.

Sip and Savor

If you haven’t had a chance to try Zin yet, it’s one of the more interesting warm-climate red grape varieties. There’s more than just fruit on the nose. It’s complex in its flavor profile. Its rich history also makes it fun to drink. Try it. Let us know your favorite producers!

For those eager to explore the rich tapestry of Zinfandel:

  • Californian Zin: Ridge and Grgich Hills offer a jammy experience, while Arnot Roberts and Matthiasson provide a more restrained taste.
  • Italian Primitivo: Masseria Liveli and Botromagno showcase a red-fruit dominant profile, contrasting beautifully with their Californian counterparts.

Zinfandel’s story, from Croatian origins to its Californian renaissance, is as rich and complex as the wine itself. Whether you’re sipping a deep red Zin or a sweet White Zinfandel, you’re partaking in a legacy that has weathered time, trends, and trials.

Red wine grapes. Vineyards

Exploring the Zin Palate

Zin, and its Italian counterpart, Primitivo, hail from the same grape lineage, leading to inherent similarities in their profiles. So, what can one anticipate when sipping a Zin? These wines are characteristically dry, robust, and pack a punch with their alcohol content, often venturing into the 16% ABV territory. Their moderate tannins and acidity are a testament to the warm climates they favor, which allow the grapes to amass sugars ideal for fermentation.

Zin’s flavor profile is undeniably indulgent. It boasts a medley of black and red fruit aromas, from blackberry and black currant to strawberry and raspberry. But it doesn’t stop there. Earthy undertones and a hint of black pepper add complexity to its bouquet.

The influence of oak is pivotal in shaping Zin’s character. Depending on the choice of oak, one might detect notes of vanilla, cocoa, caramel, dill, or even cinnamon. It’s worth noting that many winemakers in regions like Sonoma and Napa prefer American Oak over the traditional French Oak barrels. This choice imparts a decadent chocolate-vanilla essence to the wine, making it irresistibly rich.

Primitivo and Zin: A Comparative Study

While genetically identical, Primitivo and Zin have evolved to reflect their respective terroirs. Italian Primitivo is often more subdued, showcasing earthier tones and highlighting non-fruit characteristics. In contrast, California Zin is unabashedly juicy, with some winemakers even retaining a hint of residual sugar to amplify its fruity essence.

This divergence can be attributed to harvesting practices. A fun tidbit: The name ‘Primitivo’ is derived from the Italian word ‘primo’, signifying its early ripening nature. Italian vintners typically harvest these grapes earlier in the season. On the other hand, Californian vineyards bask in extended ripening periods, allowing grapes to accumulate more sugars and intensify in flavor. The outcome? A Californian zinfandel tastes fuller in body, richer in alcohol, and exudes a jammy aroma.

What type of wine is Zin?
Zinfandel in California is typically a big jammy wine with medium to low tannins.
Is red Zin sweet or dry?
Zinfandel red wines are considered dry, but some residual sugar may exist.
What is Zin called in Australia?
Zinfandel grapes (and wine) are historically called Primitive in Australia.
Is Zin a grape or a wine?
Zinfandel is the name of a grape that originated in Croatia but is now widely grown in California. When made into wine, it is also called Zin.
What kind of wine is Zin?
When Zin is fermented on its skins, it is red wine. However, some producers make a sweet pink wine from the grape called White Zin.
What is White Zinfandel?
White zinfandel is what is known as a starter wine: it has a simple peachy flavor and high sugar content.
What is Zinfandel?
The question “What is Zinfandel wine?” is a common one. Zin in California is a lush and soft red wine. It has been produced in the USA since before Prohibition.

1 thought on “What is Zinfandel?”

  1. A few of my faves: Harney Lane in Lodi, Robert Biale in Napa, Iron Hub in Amador County, and Tobin James in Paso.

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