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Zinfandel is Uniquely American

Good Zinfandel doesn't come from France, Spain, or Australia—it comes from right here

Photo: Scott Phillips
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Zinfandel, often called America’s own classic variety, is intruiguing for a few reasons: the fruity, gutsy wines it produces, the fact that Zinfandel remains pretty much exclusively an American wine, and also because it’s a little mysterious—no one is quite certain where Zinfandel came from. In fact, considerable controversy surrounds Zinfandel and its beginnings.

Many think Zinfandel is completely native to California, first planted near San Diego as early as 1851 by famed Hungarian nobleman and vintner Augustin Haraszthy. The other theory holds that Zinfandel is related to the Primitivo grape of the Apulia region of Italy (like Zinfandel, Primitivo produces rich, full-bodied reds usually high in alcohol and tannin). DNA studies at the University of California at Davis have proven Zinfandel and Primitivo to be one and the same. Still, the debate rages on.

Zinfandel is all about pleasure: It’s a mouthful of ripe, succulent fruit and berry-tinged spice. But style is critical when it comes to knowing Zinfandel. The wines are produced in a vast range of styles, from pink to light ruby red to opaque black purple; from sweet to bone dry; from light, fruity, and Beaujolais-like all the way to inky, tannic monsters that stain your teeth and your wine glass (and are probably more than capable of taking the oil stains off your driveway). As you might imagine, monster-caliber Zinfandels are quite high in alcohol and tend to be a bit overwhelming unless you’re sipping them like port. I think this vast variation in style is one of the reasons Zinfandel isn’t more widely known the world over. Much more than just about any other wine, Zinfandel can be many, different things.

Zin needs lots of sun

Zin has pretty much remained a California grape, although some is being grown in western Australia and in South Africa. Though it grows in number of different California climates, Zinfandel tends to do best in cool-to-moderate regions with long hours of sunshine. Although several parts of California have long and successful track records for producing the best examples, any Magical Zinfandel Tour must begin in Sonoma County, especially Dry Creek Valley.

The Dry Valley has the combination of optimum growing conditions and old vines—some planted well over a hundred years ago by Italian immigrants. This results in what many think is classic Zinfandel: ripe, luscious fruit that sometimes seems like it’s leaping out of the glass. Bottlings from the likes of Rafanelli and Ridge’s Geyserville are names to look for.

In nearby Napa, quite a few old Zinfandel vineyards produce delicious wines (even though Cabernet is generally recognized as king in that valley). Look for bottlings from Dickerson Vineyard and Storybook Mountain.

Amador County produces powerful Zinfandels with flavors of ripe fruit, sun-warmed earth and freshly cut green herbs. Easton is among my favorite producers.

Paso Robles is another home of outstanding Zinfandel. Ridge and Peachy Canyon are suberb and worth seeking out.

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