What is Zinfandel?

Posted by Keith Wallace

All About Zinfandel (Zin)

What is Zinfandel? Zin was considered the all-American grape for decades, an ultimate California wine. But there was always a mystery as to where it originated from.

Starting in the 1960s, academics in the wine trade started to investigate. It took until the 1990s, but the true origin of zin has been discovered. In this article, we are covering the origins and history of Zin. We also include some tasting notes and recommendations.

What Is Zinfandel? It'S In The Glass!

The Search Begins in Italy

The true origins of Zin were a mystery. It had been growing in Northern California since the 19th Century. But where did it originally come from? There was evidence it was grown in New Hampshire in a greenhouse, but that’s where the trail went cold.

In the late 60s, Austin Goheen was visiting Apulia in Southern Italy. It was there that he tasted Primitivo. He noticed similarities in the aromas and flavor profiles between Zin and Primitivo. This wine piqued his interest.

Rural Landscape Near Serracapriola, Foggia, Apulia, Southern Italy, At Summer

He was not just a tourist with a taste for fine wine: he was a professor at one of the world’s top universities for winemakers, the University of California at Davis. So he arranged for those Primitivo grapes to be brought back to UC Davis for analysis. It took several generations of researchers, and it took the advent of DNA fingerprinting for the final breakthrough: Primitivo and Zin are genetically identical.

But was Italy home to Zin? The researchers were not sure.

Crossing the Adriatic

Between the ’70s and ’90s, another conversation started to be heard in the halls of UC Davis. Zinfandel grapes and an obscure Croatian grape, Plavac Mali, were striking similarities.

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

A group of American wine producers and scientists banded together to get to the bottom of the mystery. What was the connection between Plavac Mali, Primitivo, and Zin? If they could crack that code, they would finally know the story behind the grape that survived Prohibition to become a uniquely American wine.

The University of Zagreb in Croatia provided samples of Plavac Mali to support the research. DNA testing showed it was not Zin but something even more astonishing: it was one of Zin’s parents. So the real zin was still out there. They just had to find it.

Original Zin

The research took on a whole new framework. The researchers were now in-country, investigating ancient vineyards, looking for that original vine. The search took years of labor, but it ended with success. On a lonely cliff near the Dalmatian Coast, they found an old vine called Crljenak Kaštelanski.

The researchers took samples and sent them back to California for genetic testing. After testing hundreds of DNA samples, they had struck gold. Crljenak Kaštelanski was genetically identical to Primitivo and Zin. They had found its ancestral home.

In Croatia, Crljenak Kaštelanski is also known as Tribidrag. Using local records, it was shown to grow in the region since the 15th century. The grape was brought into Italy in the 18th century and the United States in the 19th century.

The Zin-Primitivo-Crljenak Kaštelanski variety flourished in the US and Italy. However, growth dropped in Croatia due to a phylloxera outbreak in the 19th century. As a result, growers in Croatia switched to Plavac Mali because it was better suited to the climate and growing conditions.

The primary wine regions where Zin is grown nowadays are Northern California and Puglia, Italy.

A Zinful Tasting

As Zin and Primitivo are the same grape, there are some key similarities. What does a Zin taste like? Structurally, they are dry, full-bodied, and reasonably high in alcohol. They have moderate tannins and acidity. The grapes thrive in warm climates; they develop enough sugars to ferment well into the 16% ABV range.

Red Wine Grapes. Vineyards

There is no denying Zin is boozy fun. You can expect black and red fruit aromas of blackberry, black current, strawberry, and raspberry. There are also earthy and black pepper notes on the nose.

Depending on the oak treatment, you may find vanilla, cocoa, caramel, dill, or cinnamon aromas. Some winemakers in Sonoma and Napa use American Oak instead of the classic French Oak barrels. When this is done, the wine takes on a hedonistic chocolate-vanilla quality that is hard to deny.

Primitivo vs. Zin

Despite being the same genetically, there are cultural differences between Italian and Californian wines. For example, Italian Primitivo is more restrained, while California Zin is juicier. In addition, Italian Primitivo tends to be a little earthier, with more non-fruit characteristics shining through. And some California winemakers allow a little residual sugar to remain in the wine, pushing its fruit qualities even higher.

One of the reasons for the difference is that most Italian growers harvest grapes earlier in the season. Fun fact: Primitivo got its name from being an early ripening grape with “primo,” meaning first and early in Italian. Meanwhile, California growers harvest their grapes much later, developing more sugars and ripeness.

As a result, California Zins tend to be higher in body and alcohol and jammier on the nose.

California Zinfandel Recommendations

If you’re interested in tasting Zin red wines, check out the following producers:

  • Classic style (jammy) – Ridge, Grgich Hills, Seghesio Winery
  • Old-World style (restrained) – Arnot Roberts, Matthiasson (both produce limited quantities, subject to availability)

Italian Primitivo Recommendations

Some excellent Italian Primitivo producers are:

  • Masseria Liveli, Botromagno, Matane – most are red-fruit dominant with a ripe nose (rather than jammy like their twins in California)

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!

Is Zinfandel 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 Zinfandel.

What kind of wine is Zinfandel?

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?

Sweet 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.

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