On wine: The ups and downs of zinfandel

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In the 50-year history of modern California winemaking, no other wine has had more ups and downs than zinfandel. For years, its origin was questioned as was how the grape first came to be planted in California, and discussion is ongoing about which winemaking style best suits the grape.

Some say that zinfandel may be European at its roots, but wine consumers around the world identify the grape and wine as California grown and bred. As of 2014, more than 47,000 acres statewide were planted to zinfandel, while in Sonoma County the number was just over 5,000 acres, much of it in the Dry Creek Valley.

Outside California, zinfandel has attracted modest interest in Washington, Mexico, Western Australia, Chile, South Africa, Croatia and the Puglia region of southern Italy, where the grape is known as primitivo.

Along the North Coast, Dry Creek Valley is just one of the wine regions that consider zinfandel an important red wine grape. The Russian River Valley, the upper part of Dry Creek Valley known as Rockpile, plus select parts of the Napa Valley are all good spots for growing it. Elsewhere in the state, noted zinfandels come from Lodi, Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills.

Up and down the state, consumer tastes have tracked along with the stylistic changes in zinfandel since the California wine boom of the 1970s. Red wine 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 above 14 percent, the wine itself is more sophisticated and easier to drink than it once was. Today, it is still possible to find big concentrated styles of zinfandel distinguished by jammy fruit aromas and flavors. But the trend is slowly moving away from jam jar fruitiness and toward more restrained zins with nuanced fruit flavors, in better balance with alcohols that are still pushing 14.5 percent and above.

Consumers have voiced a preference for red zinfandel with its deep red color, robust spicy brambly flavors and full finish. Zinfandel also comes in “white” or pink blush to late harvest, the latter a style that resembles port more than table wine.

Traditionally, red zinfandel was aged 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 reflects zinfandel and not cabernet sauvignon.

Like it or not, the days of red wine finished at 12.5% to 13% alcohol are long gone. Global warming and changing weather patterns are partly to blame, as well as the emergence of new clonal material that has changed zinfandel ripeness levels. This diversity in style prompted a spike in zinfandel’s popularity in recent years, which in turn spawned one of the most active wine promotional organizations operating today: Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, or ZAP as it is known by its more familiar acronym.

Throughout the state, members of ZAP wrestled with concerns such as proper ripeness, alcohol levels and how to handle the zinfandel/primitivo question. Grape growers and winemakers debated whether the two grapes were the same or different grapes with similar characteristics. 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 primitivo, with one descendant moving halfway around the world to California, via Long Island, while the other took a shorter trip across the Adriatic to Puglia in southern Italy. The theory held for a few years, until DNA profiling zeroed in on the true parents. In 1994 grape scientists at California’s UC Davis put the two grapes to the test and found that zinfandel and primitivo were the same grape, descended from a near distinct Croatian variety called Crljenak Kastelanski.

And how did zinfandel get to California? For years, it was believed that a Hungarian count named Haraszthy brought the grape with him from his homeland. California historian Charles Sullivan quashed that version by showing that no mention of zinfandel was ever found in Haraszthy’s copious notes. Further, before Haraszthy came to California in 1849, evidence of the zinfandel grape was known to exist in a Long Island nursery as a hothouse variety.

Another theory held that hopeful 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.

While the various theories were debated, zinfandel’s rising popularity as a desired red wine ultimately became its temporary downfall. As demand rose, so too did vineyard acreage, often in unsuitably hot places. The market became flooded with a wine thought to be more common than cabernet sauvignon, causing sales to drop.

Then, in the 1980s, zinfandel rebounded thanks to White zinfandel, a curious wine that wasn’t white but more a rose-pink in a new style known as blush. Credit for the roaring popularity of White zinfandel goes to Napa’s Sutter Home, which 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.

Oak-aged red zinfandel is a good match with grilled meats and sausages, as well as hearty stews. White zinfandel and zinfandel roses are nice with casual meals, deli meats and fruit salads. The market for zinfandel remains more or less even, with most red zinfandel priced between $15 and $35, a few closer to $50 a bottle. White zinfandels are priced mostly under $10.

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