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The Mystery Behind Zinfandel

By W Peter Hoyne

Zinfandel is a distinctive red grape varietal that over the years has regained the respect it lost during the evolution of the illustrious White Zinfandel crusade of the 80’s. Its followers are typically fun loving and casual about their approach to wine, although they remain patriotic and extremely loyal to this grape. Its origin for the past several decades has been rather elusive with the discovery that it was a genetic match to the Primitivo grape from southern Italy’s coastal region of Puglia. Its DNA was also traced to the obscure Crljenak Kaštelanski, “the red grape of Kastela” and the 16th century Tribidrag grape from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Regardless of its parents or surname, Zinfandel made the transatlantic journey to the United States in the 1800’s and became well established in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada during the gold rush period. By the 1880’s, nearly half of the plantings in California were Zinfandel. It had been found in some vineyards with field blends of Petit Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouchet. This vigorous, black, heat-tolerant grape thrives in the warm inland regions of northern California with old vine plantings dating back over 100 years. It became the grape of choice for Italian immigrants and home winemakers during Prohibition, becoming the third leading grape varietal planted in California with nearly 45,000 acres of vineyards. Referred to as “America’s heritage grape”, Zinfandel consumers recognize its ancestry and are passionate followers of this grape. It can vary in style from brooding and ripe to softly textured and complex. Its richly textured style and occasional high alcohol ripeness is ideally suited for it to be consumed in its youth. Yet, with age, it can transform its spicy, brambly personality into a complex-styled blend of exotic red and blue fruits.

The largest percentage of Zinfandel acreage can be found within California. The vast majority of these grapes are in California’s Central Valley, primarily Lodi, which is the self-proclaimed “Zinfandel Capitol of the World.” Sonoma and the appellations of Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley, along with Napa Valley, Paso Robles and Amador craft some of the most expressive examples of this varietal.

It can be difficult to categorize the style of Zinfandel by a specific region where it is grown, since there can be many variations depending on soil composition, microclimates and of course, winemaker influence.

Napa Valley: A modest 3% of Napa’s acreage is dedicated to Zinfandel, with Cabernet Sauvignon retaining its status as the dominant grape in this high rent district. Elyse Winery, which has vineyards that rest on the Rutherford Bench, has been making compelling wines for over 30 years. Their consistently stunning Morisoli Vineyard Zinfandel is a benchmark in the valley and predates the winery with vines that were cultivated the early 1900’s. Zinfandel is also grown at higher elevations in Napa Valley from Howell Mountain and other hillside plantings. These Zinfandels are usually medium to full bodied in style with notes of blackberry compote and dark plums. There can be a deep earthiness to these wines with warm spices, espresso along with a hint of sweet oak and sandalwood inside a balanced core.

Lodi: This region is covered at length in Don Clemens’ article titled “Zinfandel Memories, and Perhaps Some Prognostications.” Zinfandels are typically juicy and rich while occasionally bold with undertones of red raspberry, vanilla bean shavings and milk chocolate fudge. These wines can present a more concentrated style and flaunt a jammy personality depending on the producer.

Dry Creek Valley: Dry Creek is part of Sonoma County and just outside of the town of Healdsburg with Russian River Valley to its south. Along with its rural feel, this area has had an agricultural footprint of farming by immigrants since the 1800’s. There are over 9,000 acres of vineyards and over 70 wineries. Its history dates back over 140 years, although the Dry Creek AVA wasn’t established until 1983. This area has warm, sunny days and fog-laden mornings. There are multi-generational families that continue to farm Zinfandel in this region consisting of the largest portion of old vine (50+ years old) plantings. These wines can possess briary elements with sweet baking spices and a touch of black pepper and sage.

Russian River Valley: Although recognized for its stunning Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, Russian River Valley Zinfandel has etched its own place in history. Russian River Valley resides in Sonoma County and is wedged between the towns of Healdsburg to the north and Santa Rosa in the south. It has six distinct neighborhoods. Coastal fog and its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean contribute to the cooling influence in this region. Its sub-soils are predominately sandstone-loam, known as Goldridge. Of historic significance is Martinelli’s Jackass Hill Zinfandel, a three-acre, steep vineyard planting that was originally cultivated with a horse and plow by Giuseppi Martinelli in the late 1880’s. According to the Martinelli’s it was given this name because “only a jackass would farm a hill this steep.” The Zinfandels from Russian River Valley are typically lower in alcohol with slightly higher acidity. You won’t find overripe Zinfandel from this grape growing area. These are high-toned wines that offer an assortment of wild berries and spiced black plums that lean toward a more balanced style, with finesse and elegance rather than weight.

Amador: Southeast of Sacramento are the Sierra Foothills of Amador County. California’s Gold Rush of the 1850’s began in these mountain ranges as gold mining became the primary source of income. The Original Grandpère Vineyard is situated in the Sierra Foothills and is still producing Zinfandel grapes. Dating back to 1869, this vineyard is recognized as the oldest Zinfandel vineyard in North America.

The steep hillsides of the Sierra Foothills are composed of volcanic granite and loamy soils with elevations that can range upwards of 3,000 feet above sea level. Here the intense sunlight gives rise to warm sunny days that can have a dramatic diurnal shift and a drop in temperature of 35 degrees at night. This cooling influence maintains the acidity in the grapes. The resulting wines can be powerful with an intense complex body showcasing savory notes, star anise and black pepper, occasionally with some juicy richness.

Zinfandel remains one of the most underappreciated grape varietals in the marketplace with its casual and unassuming style. Yet, given the right growing conditions this wine can express an array of complex flavors and undertones that will rival many other wines. While its social awareness is somewhat lagging behind that of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, our tastings revealed that this wine overdelivers in the amount of pleasure it offers and has age-worthy elements that deserve a place in every cellar.

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