When you hear White Zinfandel, you probably think pink, sweet, low in alcohol, and, of course, inexpensive. But White Zinfandel is back in a new iteration. That doesn’t mean you should expect Sutter Home to start popping up on top wine lists; that can remain stockpiled in your mom’s fridge. But some California winemakers have decided to reinvent the White Zinfandel wine style, producing dry, Provençal-style rosé wines using the Zinfandel grape. Buckle up — this is White Zin 2.0.
At its core, White Zinfandel is a rosé wine made from the red grape Zinfandel, so any rosé made from Zinfandel is technically “White Zin.” The OG White Zinfandel emerged in the 1970s from Sutter Home, when winemaker Bob Trinchero siphoned off some of the juice from his classic red Zinfandel in order to concentrate it further. This is a classic method for producing rosé, known as the saignée method. Trinchero then dubbed the resulting dry wine “White Zinfandel.” But the popularity and style of the wine were truly cemented several years later, when a fermentation stopped, or “stuck,” leaving a blush-colored wine with residual sugar. Soon wine drinkers were clamoring for the easy-drinking, sugary juice, and with other wineries quickly mimicking the style, White Zinfandel became the most popular wine in the U.S. until the late ’90s. While sommeliers may scoff, likening the classic style more to a strawberry juice box than to wine, you can find lots of White Zinfandel still on liquor and grocery store shelves to this day.
But the idea that White Zinfandel should be completely identified with this style of wine doesn’t sit well with some winemakers. Turley Wine Cellars, known for making high-quality, old vine Zinfandel since the 1990s, was the first to take on this challenge in 2011. The initiative was the brainchild of Christina Turley, director of sales and marketing for Turley Wine Cellars and the oldest of proprietor Larry Turley’s four daughters.
“White Zin had a good heart and a bad reputation, so naturally, I was drawn to it,” Turley says. “The hope was to reclaim the category and rescue this iconic California wine from being banished to the bottom shelf of the supermarket indefinitely.” Ironically, Turley Wine Cellars, along with many other Zinfandel producers, likely have the White Zin craze of days past to thank for the source of their supreme red Zinfandels; the production of White Zin saved many of these old vines from being ripped out and replanted to varieties considered more noble at the time, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Another winemaker revamping White Zinfandel is Chris Walsh, owner and winemaker of The End of Nowhere in Amador County, located an hour east of Sacramento. Walsh, who was born and raised in Amador County, grew up surrounded by big, jammy reds made from the region’s ubiquitous Zinfandel. But after becoming a sommelier at some of New York’s top wine bars, his taste preferences changed. When he returned to his hometown to start making wine, Walsh craved a wine that was fresher.
“Every once in awhile I would have [a Zinfandel] that made me think there were other possible stylistic takes on Zin,” Walsh says. “So I wanted to experiment and see what it could do.”
Walsh’s White Zinfandel — which is labeled as Zinfandel rosé — was one of two plays on Zin for his first vintage released to the public, along with a red wine vinified using entirely whole cluster fermentation.
The key to making a great White Zinfandel is not to cut corners at any point during the winemaking process. The grapes must be picked with the intent to make a rosé from the start, which means picking them earlier than grapes picked for red wine. This is opposed to the popular saignée method used for many U.S. rosés: simply bleeding off juice from a red wine fermentation. Using the saignée approach would result in an overly fruity, super-boozy White Zinfandel lacking in acidity. Fermenting the wine until dry is key in order to focus on freshness rather than sugar. Turley Wine Cellars also farms their grapes organically and ages the wine in used French oak barrels, similar to high-end Provençal rosés.
Is the Zinfandel grape really worthy of such attention, time, and expense? Turley and Walsh say yes. Because it tends to ripen early, White Zinfandel can express characteristic Zin flavors like red berries, peach, and spice without sacrificing acidity and freshness. Plus, there’s the curveball factor. “Because it is so well known for the big, sweet style, it can really surprise you,” says Walsh. “I love blind tasting people on it.”
So when White Zin pops up on a wine list next to your favorite rosé, don’t scoff. In addition to Turley Wine Cellars and The End of Nowhere, Broc Cellars and other modern wineries are channeling efforts into building the new wave of White Zinfandel. Maybe just have your mom taste it before she fills the glass with ice cubes.