Plot as Thick as 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.
the case may be, America loves Zinfandelwhether 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.
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.
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.
but it is here where the plot thickens like a Turley Zinfandel.
From the beginning, growers in Southern Italy have been telling
the American ampelographersscientists of the vinethat
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?
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
own list of the best and most consistent Zinfandel producers you
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
Grgich Hills (extraordinarily refined Napa/Sonoma blends)
Rancho Zabaco (incredible buys from Dry Creek Valley by the
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
Blockheadia Ringnosii (bright, zesty reds from Napa Valley)
Cedarville Vineyard (high elevation, upcoming star from Sierra
what are you waiting for? Strap on your bullwhips and enjoy a glass
of Zinfandel today!