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A Plot as Thick as Zinfandel

by Randal Caparoso

Zinfandel has long been considered the "all-American" varietal wine. Make that "all-California," because virtually all of it is grown in the state of California.

Whatever the case may be, America loves Zinfandel—whether it is made into a light, fizzy, fruity pink wine, or a moderate to very full, thick, lip smacking red wine. This black skinned grape is successfully cultivated up and down the state, from the warm regions of the Central Valley to the windy, bone chilling mountainsides of Mendocino.

Zinfandel has long been considered a uniquely American wine because nowhere else in the world has it been produced with so much success. Since the mid-1800s, when it was already established as California's dominant variety, grape growers have known that Zinfandel originated from the same European family of grapes, called Vitis vinifera, to which varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir belong. But for the most part, grape growers just didn't know what part of Europe Zinfandel came from. And if it was still grown in Europe, it surely wasn't making famously great drinking wines like it does in California.

—Our Top Zins
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—10 California Zinfandels for around $10 and more

In the 1960s, however, a plant pathologist named Austin Goheen happened to notice a vine grown in Sicily and Apulia that bore a strong outward resemblance to Zinfandel. In Italy it was called the Primitivo, and used primarily for blending with other red wine varieties to make wines of somewhat modest quality. Cuttings were brought back to the University of California in Davis; and although the viticultural professors were fairly certain that Primitivo bore at least a clonal resemblance to the Zinfandel cultivated in California, it wasn't until the 1990s that DNA profiling techniques established this fact beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Ah, but it is here where the plot thickens like a Turley Zinfandel. From the beginning, growers in Southern Italy have been telling the American ampelographers—scientists of the vine—that Primitivo had been cultivated there for barely 150 years. Not much longer than in the U.S.! So if it didn't originate in Apulia, where did Zinfandel come from?

Following a clue from Italian scientists, Professor Goheen crossed over the Adriatic to Croatia in 1977, where he obtained cuttings of still another strikingly Zinfandel-like vine called Plavac Mali. But back home in his lab in UC Davis, Goheen was never able to conclusively establish a direct link between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel.

Enter Carole Meredith, the prominent grapevine geneticist who originally established the clonal link between Zinfandel and Primitivo. With the help of two Croatian colleagues, in 1988 Meredith collected 150 samples of Plavac Mali from up and down the Croatian coast as well as from some of the larger nearby islands. But subsequent exhaustive DNA studies back home in UC Davis could only prove one thing: there was a relationship between Zinfandel and Plavac Mali, but it entailed one being the offspring of the other. Talk about your vinous soap!

It wasn't until June of 2001 that Meredith finally unraveled the chromosomal knot: Plavac Mali is a natural crossing of Zinfandel and another obscure Croatian variety called Dobricic. Oh, you wicked Dobricic, see what you have wrought? A number of Plavac Mali based red wines recently imported into the U.S., erroneously and prematurely sold as Zinfandel!

Meanwhile back in the old country, in December 2001, Professor Ivan Pejic stumbled upon still another obscure Croatian variety called Crljenak. Doing his own, less sophisticated DNA analysis in Croatia, Pejic found compelling evidence that the long lost European Zinfandel had been found at last. A more detailed, and definitive, follow-up done by Meredith in her own lab in Davis has just recently confirmed the truth: Zinfandel is Crljenak, conclusively establishing the grape's Croatian heritage.

But does it? Professor Meredith has not discounted the possibility that Crljenak may have actually been brought to Croatia from Albania or Greece. Undoubtedly, the work of this Indiana Jones of the ampelographic world goes on.

Speaking of grape profiling, exactly what is it about the wine that makes Zinfandel lovers go weak in the knees? To begin with, it has to be the aroma and flavor of Zinfandel, especially when it is made into a big, bodacious red: a blackberry and/or raspberry fruitiness intensified to the point of jamminess, often tinged by distinctive black peppery and brown spice (especially cinnamon and clove) aromas.

When picked overripe, in relatively warm regions such as Lodi, El Dorado and Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, the Zinfandel fruitiness can become raisiny or even prune-like. In cooler regions, such as Sonoma's Russian River Valley and Mendocino Ridge, Zinfandel often exudes luscious aromas related to blueberry, cranberry, and sometimes strawberry and black cherry.

Pink toned White Zinfandels are almost always predictably soft, fruity, and slightly sweet. But when made into a red wine, Zinfandels can range from light (12 percent alcohol) to heavy (as much as 15 percent or 16 percent alcohol). When selecting a bottle, it helps to look at the alcohol level, because generally the thickest, most intense Zinfandels - in both flavor and tannin - are at least 14 percent in alcohol. And as you would expect, price is also an indication. Retail prices of the best Zinfandel bottlings are rarely less than $12, and usually closer to $20.

My own list of the best and most consistent Zinfandel producers you can find:

• Ridge Vineyards (amazingly opulent array of reds from up and down the California coast)
• De Loach Vineyards (powerful reds as well as a wonderful White Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley)
• Robert Biale (the most elegant of Napa Valley producers)
• Turley Wine Cellars (the biggest, thickest, headiest of Napa Valley reds)
• Grgich Hills (extraordinarily refined Napa/Sonoma blends)
• Rancho Zabaco (incredible buys from Dry Creek Valley by the Gallo family)
• Ravenswood (while the ubiquitous "Vintner's Reserve" bottlings are ordinaire, their single vineyard bottlings are blockbusters)
• Dry Creek Vineyards (richly berryish Sonoma bottlings)
• Edizione Pennino (fine, juicy reds by the Francis Coppola family)
• Blockheadia Ringnosii (bright, zesty reds from Napa Valley)
• Cedarville Vineyard (high elevation, upcoming star from Sierra Foothills)

So what are you waiting for? Strap on your bullwhips and enjoy a glass of Zinfandel today!

Randal Caparoso


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