Zinfandel is in many ways a quintessential American grape. Although it did not originate here, no vinus vinafera, (or fine wine grapes) did, it found its home here and has prospered. There are several competing theories as to where it originated but the best guess is somewhere in the middle-east, probably Syria. Don’t be surprised, well into the eighteenth century the middle-east was a major supplier of wine to Europe. Many predominantly muslim countries have historically made wine. Either they didn’t take religious injunctions against alcohol seriously or they didn’t mind selling it to others.
A grape variety called Black Zinfandel was mentioned in the U.S. as early as 1830. By the 1850’s it had reached California where by the end of the nineteenth century it was the most widely planted wine grape.
Zinfandel is used to make a wide variety of wines, everything from a very light rose (“White Zinfandel”) to big dark tannic red wines that drink best after years of aging. Most everyday Zinfandels are fairly big wines with a lot of jammy fruit flavors. They can have interesting spicy and peppery flavor as well. When the fruit is not balanced by alcohol, tannin’s or acidity they can seem sweet and cloying. Better ones make use of the naturally high tannin content in the grape skin.
Zinfandel is sometimes blended with grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. I have even tasted blends with Zinfandel and Sangiovese. However, it is most often vinified as a single varietal. This is particularly true of the “Old Vine Zinfandels”. Most wines made from grapes grown on older vines exhibit more character and structure than those from younger vines. This is even more so with Zinfandel. Given that some Zinfandel vineyards are over one-hundred years old, wine maker have tried to distinguish their wines made from older vines. There is however no standard for calling a vine an “old vine”. You have to trust the vineyard.
A quick note on related grapes: Since Zinfandel is not known to exist outside the U.S. (except when brought from the U.S.) there has been some effort to find its roots (pun intended). A lot of fuss has been made claiming that the Italian grape Primitivo is the same as Zinfandel. Some Croatian varieties have also been touted as the “original Zinfandel”. Particular attention has been given to genetic studies of Primitivo made in the early 1990’s. DNA testing has gotten a lot better since then and the same methods used at that time could not distinguish between Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc (closely related but very different varieties). I suspect that Primitivo is closely related to Zinfandel. When it is grown side by side with Zinfandel they have yielded distinctly different wines.
I enjoy Zinfandel most often in the fall or winter when its alcohol and big fruit flavors can be a good match to Thanksgiving turkey and roast game. Enjoy.