On wine: Zin versatile, delicious and good with food

You’ve worked your way through a growing array of pinot noirs and cabernet sauvignons. So what's next? Zinfandel, the red wine that bridges the stylistic gap between pinot and cab.|

You’ve worked your way through the growing array of Russian River pinot noirs and sampled as many Napa Valley and Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignons you can afford, so what’s next? Try zinfandel; the red wine that bridges the stylistic gap between pinot and cabernet.

Here are five reasons to bring zinfandel to your table tonight:

Zin is delicious - At the top of the list, the most obvious reason to drink zinfandel is it’s delicious! You could say the same about most wines, but there’s something different and unique about the taste of zinfandel.

Most of us have pleasant memories of our youth, especially of the warm inviting smell of our mother’s kitchen. Memories of pleasant moments usually lay dormant, until later in life when the smell of a peanut butter sandwich slathered with blackberry jam or the heady scent of a freshly baked berry tart, come rushing back into our consciousness. Zinfandel can evoke those memories.

The most common style of zinfandel is rich and jammy, packed with sumptuous berry flavors often described as blackberry or black raspberry. An early descriptor of zinfandel was “brambleberry,” or the fruit of the prickly blackberry or raspberry bush. Brambleberry is rarely used today to describe the aroma and flavor of zinfandel, but the comparison is still valid. One sip of a ripe zinfandel and it’s clear why blackberry jam says it all.

Some wineries have eased back on the inherent jammy flavors of zinfandel while retaining the deliciousness of the wine. Zin fans describe this restrained style as more cabernet-like than zin-like.

Zin is versatile - Up and down the state, consumer tastes in red wine have tracked along with the stylistic changes in zinfandel since the California wine boom of the 1970s. Preferences then leaned more to heavier red wines with high alcohol that married nicely with hearty cuts of grilled meats and substantial stews.

As food trends slowly moved toward lighter meals, so too did zinfandel styles. Although the natural alcohol of most modern zinfandels is 14.5 percent or higher, the wine itself is more sophisticated and easier to drink than it once was.

You can still find big concentrated styles of zinfandel, but the trend is slowly moving away from jam-jar fruitiness and toward more restrained nuanced fruit flavors, while keeping the fruity flavors in better balance with alcohols that still push 14.5 percent.

Today’s consumers tend to lean more toward red zinfandel, but there are other zin choices like “white” or pink blush to late harvest, the latter a style that resembles port more than table wine. Credit for the popularity of white zinfandel goes to Napa’s Sutter Home that went from a few thousand cases in 1980 to 1.5 million cases in 1986. It was a wine industry success story unlike any before or after.

Zinfandel’s high-profile fruit and more aggressive flavors were a natural for aging in American oak barrels, but today some winemakers prefer French oak for its less-aggressive seasoning. This change in the cellar challenges the winemaker to seamlessly marry the delicacy of French oak with robust zinfandel fruit for a wine style that still reflects zinfandel and not cabernet sauvignon.

Zin is America’s wine - Some say that zinfandel is European at its roots, but wine consumers around the world identify the grape and wine as California grown and bred. In recent years, members of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers or ZAP, as it is known by its more familiar acronym, wrestled with questions of ripeness, alcohol levels and how to handle the zinfandel/primitivo question.

As early as the 1970s, it was believed that zinfandel was a California grape and primitivo was an Italian grape. But were they the same? Research at the time pointed to an obscure Croatian grape as the parent of both zinfandel and primitive. But in 1994, grape scientists at California’s UC Davis put the two grapes to the test and found that zinfandel and primitivo is the same grape, descended from a near distinct Croatian variety called Crljenak Kastelanski.

Zinfandel’s journey to California is also open to question. For years, it was believed that a Hungarian count named Haraszthy brought the grape with him to California from his homeland.

Research, however, quashed that version by showing that Haraszthy never mentioned zinfandel in his notes. Evidence also shows that the zinfandel grape existed in a Long Island nursery before Haraszthy came to California in 1849.

An associated theory held that disillusioned miners during the California Gold Rush eventually turned to grape growing, using plant material from the East Coast, that including zinfandel, likely from the Long Island nursery.

Zin is good with wine - Oak-aged red zinfandel marries nicely with grilled meats and sausages, as well as hearty stews, barbecue and pasta with red sauce. Casual meals and picnic fare featuring deli meats and cheeses and fruit salads, call for white zinfandel and zinfandel rosés.

The market for zinfandel remains more or less even, with bottle prices for most red zinfandel between $15 and $35, with a few closer to $50 a bottle. White zinfandels are around $10.

Zin is at home in Sonoma County - As of 2015, there were about 48,000 acres of wine grapes in Sonoma County, with 5,000 acres of zinfandel planted mainly in Rockpile and Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Moon Mountain. Rockpile, above Lake Sonoma, is a valued site for zinfandel as are small parts of the Russian River Valley.

Recommended Sonoma County zinfandels: Rockpile Ridge Vineyard, Seghesio, Rosenblum, Mauritson, all from Rockpile; Mazzocco, Dry Creek Vineyard Heritage and Old Vine, Nalle, Pedroncelli, Lambert Bridge, Frei Brothers, from Dry Creek Valley; Alexander Valley Vineyard, Ridge, Murphy-Goode, Seghesio, from Alexander Valley; Moon Mountain Vineyard, Ravenswood and Bartholomew Park Winery, from Moon Mountain.

Zinfandels from these wineries will be poured at ZAP’s Zin Experience, Feb. 23-25 in San Francisco. For more details, go to info@zinfandel.org.

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