This November on VinePair, we’re celebrating everything about American Wine. From up-and-coming regions and our favorite bottles, to the challenges winemakers are facing right now, we’re turning a spotlight on the industry across the United States.
The origins of Zinfandel here in the U.S. remain mysterious. It is now known that it has roots in either Puglia, Italy (where it is known as Primitivo) or in Croatia (where it’s called Tribidrag or Crljenak Kaštelanski). However, a direct lineage of the grape has not yet been established. No one knows for sure if the grape is Italian or Croatian. And moreover, no one knows how or when it made its way to the States.
Many of the oldest vineyards in California are planted mostly with Zinfandel. These are referred to as “mixed blacks” plantings. The Zinfandel in these places can often be supported by dozens of other varieties such as Grenache, Petit Sirah, Dolcetto, Barbera, Alicante Bouschet, Negrette, Mondeuse, and even white varieties like Chenin Blanc, Muscadelle, or Colombard in small amounts. These old vineyards are a look back on a different way of making wine.
The vineyards of Bordeaux, among many other European wine regions, were historically planted with multiple varieties as a kind of insurance. Different varieties have variable tolerance to vintage conditions, so an interplanted vineyard can yield compelling wine no matter the conditions of the year. Even if Cabernet Sauvignon has a bad year, there’s enough Merlot in the ground to make a good wine, the logic goes. These practices became tradition and then eventually, many were codified into law as appellation systems across Europe.
The story in America is quite different. Many interplanted vineyards succumbed to the economic pressures of the 20th century, which drove wineries to favor monovarietal wines. Modern viticultural techniques and new consumer sensibilities created a new landscape. Old, mixed blacks vineyards were pulled out and replanted. Still, many gnarled, bush-trained, old-vine Zinfandel vineyards remain. And those plots, some now rooted for more than a century, are capable of producing Zinfandel-based wines of grace, complexity, and depth.
“It stands apart from, say, Pinot, Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and other notable varieties in not having a convenient, famous, Old World comparison,” says Frog’s Leap Winery owner and winemaker John Williams of Zinfandel. “Pinot has its Romanée and Cab its Latour, if you get my drift. Zinfandel, with its only recent parental identification, remains the standard in California more so than where it came from.”
It’s true — no European example of this grape has reached the acclaimed status of California estates like Ridge or Turley. These wineries have left an indelible stamp on the wine world, using the ink of Zinfandel, proving the variety to be delicious, regal, and quite age-worthy. And Zin fans who look hard can find plenty of restaurants across the country that offer deep verticals of the grape. “I challenge you to go to a place like Bern’s Steak House in Tampa Bay and not have a mind-bending experience with one of their many aged examples,” says Hai Tran, longtime sommelier and contributor to the wine team Sommation.
But Zinfandel never entered the popular consciousness the way other varieties did. In the post-war period, consumer hearts and minds were first won by Cabernet Sauvignon and championed by Robert Mondavi. Then by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, promoted by a set of excited graduates of UC Davis more than a decade later. “Zinfandel simply doesn’t have a proper champion,” Tran says, “someone like Paul Grieco doing a ‘fall for Zinfandel’ event or the like.”
It isn’t that every grape or wine region requires an enthusiastic advocate, though, through the ages, many certainly have. Take your pick of the royal houses extolling the virtues of this or that place. Robert Parker did quite a lot of cheerleading for Cabernet and Pinot Noir of a particular style. The minds of many can be changed by a learned and/or charismatic voice. While none have succeeded in making this grape a phenom the likes of Napa Valley Cab, plenty are devoted to making, selling, and drinking the wide variety of expressions this grape can achieve.
The owner and winemaker at Cutter Cascadia, Michael Garofolo was a sommelier before he began making wine five years ago. “I don’t think I ever bought a Zin as a somm,” he says. “I didn’t have designs on working with it until some became available in 2019.” Garofolo now makes some truly beautiful Zinfandel both as a red and as a rosé — all coming from a plot planted with old, enigmatic cuttings with unknown origins in the Columbia Gorge. The vineyard is called Hillside, and it sits close to cherry orchards and wheat fields. “The Zin that I work with is one of the most interesting clones available in Oregon,” he says. “Old clones before they got cleaned up are like old scrappy dogs. I like it.”
As Williams states, Zin lacks context in the wine community, as so many somms’ backgrounds are predominantly in European wines. This doesn’t stop curious, hardworking winemakers from adding the grape to their repertoires.
What is it about Zinfandel that makes it such a darling of industry professionals? For some, it’s the heritage and history of vineyards that have survived the ages. Though none predate the scourge phylloxera, many, planted in the waning days of the 19th century, remain. Others are simply charmed by a grape that is so versatile. It is full-bodied, yet often zippy. The character of fruit on display can range from underripe strawberry to stewed prune. It is aromatic and inviting while also being savory and brooding. It can even make a great base for traditional-method sparkling wine. Needless to say, Zin has a wide variety of expressions.
The grape is typified by large, tight clusters of unevenly ripening berries — one of Zinfandel’s greatest strengths. Underripe berries help to preserve freshness and acidity while grapes on the other side of ripe provide depth of flavor. This also creates a wide variety of tastes in the finished wine. Zinfandel-based wines can simultaneously display tart cranberry character and jammy blackberry in the same glass. Savory, smoky notes can mingle with high-toned herbal notes.
The Hopeful Future
On top of its want of an Old World comparison, Zin decreased in popularity in the 20th century due to two unfortunate trends. One was the White Zinfandel craze which, in addition to confusing consumers about the nature (and color) of the grape, reached a fever pitch and ended up turning people off altogether. The off-dry rosé was produced in massive, industrial quantities and became a powerful fad. Due to its high levels of sweetness and marketing techniques, the style got a bad rap — in turn affecting the general perception of its red sibling.
The other is the same trend that we continue to see in the industry: a shift in the American palate toward high-octane, high-extraction wines with a lot of alcohol and very little varietal character. “It doesn’t help that during the time when critics were rewarding big, decadent, jammy wines, a lot of producers were following suit with their Zinfandels,” Tran says. “We must remember that this wasn’t always the case and that Zinfandel can produce fresh and restrained styles that are filled with depths of flavor and complexity as well as acidity..”
A new generation of winemakers like Garofolo are adding a 21st-century sensibility to this variety. There are wines on the market that lean heavily to early harvest, red fruit, and intense acidity. Even makers of the chewy, stodgy, syrupy wines of the ’80s and ’90s are embracing Zinfandel’s ability to be all things. A wide spectrum of fruit flavors is being embraced with preservation of freshness held as a virtue. Old vineyards are being cataloged and preserved by the Historic Vineyard Society. The grape itself is settling into the zeitgeist as a versatile variety that, when treated well, can truly produce world- class wines.
The origins of Zinfandel remain cloudy, but in the end, that seems unimportant. The U.S. is its home now. And based on the many lauded and beautiful examples coming from venerable producers, Zinfandel’s place in the pantheon of noble varieties is almost assured.
Will Zin have a comeback? As palates expand and consumers visit their local wine experts for recommendations each day, perhaps they’ll become aware of the wide array of possibilities. Hopefully older drinkers, accustomed to 100-point Cabernets, can drink from the same bottle as their younger counterparts who value freshness and acidity. Surely Zin can fill that middle ground.