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History of Zinfandel

Posted by on December 26th

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All About Zinfandel

For decades, Zinfandel was considered the all-American grape, 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 zinfandel has been discovered. In this article, we are covering the origins and history of ZInfandel. We also include some tasting notes and recommendations.

glass of zinfandel

The Search Begins in Italy

The true origins of Zinfandel were a mystery. It had been growing in Northern Calfornia 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 Zinfandel 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. 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 Zinfandel 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. There were striking similarities between Zinfandel and an obscure Croatian grape, Plavac Mali.

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, and Primitivo, and Zinfandel? 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 Zinfandel, but something even more astonishing: it was one of Zin’s parents. 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 Zinfandel. They had found its ancestral home.

3D illustration. Genetic test in test tube.

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

Plentiful Zinfandel

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

Today, the primary wine regions where Zinfandel is grown nowadays are Northern California and Puglia, Italy.

A Zinful Tasting

Seeing as Zin and Primitivo is the same grape, there are some key similarities. Structurally, they are dry, full-bodied, and fairly high in alcohol. They have moderate tannins and acidity. Given that 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 aromas of vanilla, cocoa, caramel, dill, or cinnamon. 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. Italian Primitivo is more restrained, while California Zinfandel is juicier. Italian Primitivo tends to be a little earthier, with more of the 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 actually 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, so they develop more sugars and ripeness.

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

California Zin Recommendations

If you’re interested in tasting California Zin, 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 nice 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)

Wrap Up on Zinfandel

If you haven’t had a chance to try Zinfandel 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!

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