Zinfandel: What's Not to Like?
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed September 24, 2001. For more information go to www.wineloverspage.com.
The secret to the popularity of Zinfandel may simply be that it is easy to like. At its best, "Zin" offers up big, ripe blackberries and raspberries in an exuberant fruitiness that almost seems sweet.
Reflecting on a glass of Eos 1997 Paso Robles Zinfandel from California over dinner in a restaurant the other night, it occurred to me that Zin is a wine that even people who don't think they like wine can enjoy; yet it's interesting enough to please wine enthusiasts as well.
A big wine with a big personality, it's rarely described as "subtle" or "elegant," but even those of us who tend to favor wines in the European style find it hard to turn down a glass of Zinfandel.
A quick refresher on the grape: It's often called an "American" grape because it's predominantly grown in the United States, but Zin - like many American citizens - traces its roots to the Old World. Historians have found traces of Zinfandel as a table grape grown in the eastern U.S. well before the Civil War; it has been grown in California since Gold Rush days.
But it clearly came from Europe, and for a long time, grape scientists believed Zin was a descendant of the Primitivo grape grown in Southern Italy. Further research and DNA studies now suggest that it's the other way around, though, and that Primitivo is probably the descendant of Zinfandel cuttings brought to Italy from the U.S. more than a century ago. DNA testing indicates that Croatia's Plavac Mali is another cousin. It seems likely, though, that the ancestor of Zinfandel originally grew somewhere in the Balkans.
Be that as it may, Zin's fame is spreading. Long available only in the U.S., it's now widely exported, and a number of Australian producers are growing it now with persuasive results.
There's really no wine quite like Zinfandel ... but make sure the wine in your glass is red. "White Zinfandel," a sweet, pink wine made by extracting the juice from Zinfandel grapes while limiting exposure to the color-bearing skins, simply doesn't successfully carry the big, ripe flavors of the real thing.