The Real Face of Zinfandel Wine: Dark and Dry

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Red Zinfandel, or the ‘real’ Zinfandel, is regarded as the quintessential California wine. Incredibly popular and delicious, Zinfandel wines are perfect for a host of fun gatherings. It is no wonder it is considered California’s heritage grape.

Despite the proliferation of ‘White Zin’ – the very popular pink, slightly sweet wine – Zinfandel is actually a red grape, capable of producing some of California’s most distinctive and enjoyable wines.

Zinfandel cuttings came to California during the Gold Rush. Because it adapted so well to the terrain, it was quickly adopted as California’s own variety, even though it’s origins are not American. For years no one knew the precise origin of the grape. In 2001 after much scientific research DNA testing determined that Zinfandel had the same DNA as the Croatian red variety Crljenak Kaštelanski (soorl-yen-ak kash-tel-ahn-ski). Even though its origins are European, Zinfandel is truly at the heart of California’s wine history, and justifiably regarded as its heritage grape.

In California, Zinfandel is the third most planted variety after Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. While much of this goes into the production of inexpensive white zin, there is significant acreage home to very old gnarly bush vines that make delicious, well-structured, full-bodied dry wines.

There is a wide spectrum of Zinfandel styles. However, the prevailing aromas and flavors are of bramble fruit with attractive spice and peppery notes. What makes Zinfandel daunting for some wine drinkers is that it is often hard to tell the style from the bottle. Zinfandel wines have a reputation for being high in alcohol (up to and above 16%abv), rich, ripe, powerful and almost port like. Many certainly are made in this style, but there are also many leaner, elegant wines. The dilemma for the wine-drinker, is how to tell, if you have not tasted the wine before. My advice, first check the alcohol level – if 16% or above, it is most likely the bigger, heavier style. To be extra sure, ask the sales assistant or check out reviews online.

While Zinfandel is grown throughout California, there are a number of areas that I particularly associate with the grape. First up is Sonoma County, especially Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley. There is also a lot of great Zinfandel wine coming from Paso Robles, which I posted about last week, as well as Lodi, Napa, Mendocino and Amador counties. Additionally, many of the great producers blend fruit from several counties and label the wines simply as California.

There are many great Zin producers in California. Too many to list here. Some of my favorites are the Zinfandel pioneering wineries – Ravenswood, Ridge, Rafanelli and Rosenblum as well as Nalle, Frog’s Leap, Seghesio, Quivara and Sobon Estate.

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Zin wines come at all price points. Certainly there are many great ones at the expensive end, but also fantastic value at lower prices. I recently tasted through a number of the less expensive ones and found some terrific wines.

2007 Ravenswood Zinfandel, Vintners Blend, California $10 – Ravenswood’s introductory Zinfandel. Very fruit driven with ripe jammy, bramble aromas and flavors. Easy to drink and very easy on the wallet. Great with pizza or pasta with a spicy tomato sauce.

2008 Sobon Estate Zinfandel, Hillside, Amador County, $11 – Really quite lovely and made from old vines in Amador County. More coffee and cocoa aromas mingling with ripe black berry fruit. Full-bodied and robust. Great with grilled flank steak or strong cheese such as a Shropshire Blue.

2007 Cline Zinfandel, California, $12 – Another old vine example and packed with ripe jammy brambly fruit. Lovely spicy finish. Another wine for grilled meats or autumn meat stews.

NV Rosenblum Zinfandel Cuvée XXXI, $12 – I love the freshness of this non-vintage wine with interesting tangy cherry notes with all the ripe black fruit. Smooth and a nice long finish. Try with strong cheese, pasta with ragu sauce or a blackened pork chop.

2006 Quivira Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, $20 – A small, organic family-run winery. This is an elegant, leaner style, with bright red berry notes complementing the black fruit as well as notes of coffee, chocolate, smoke and spice.

2007 Ridge Three Valleys, Sonoma County , $23 – Though a little more expensive, definitely worth it. A firm favorite in our household and an affordable way to experience the wines from Ridge. Full bodied, brooding and packed with ripe fruit, yet has excellent structure and firm, ripe tannin. A blend of mainly Zinfandel with small amounts of Petite Sirah, Syrah, Grenache and Carignane.

Enjoy some great value Zin wines and California Wine Month. Until next week.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

(Images: Flickr member mccun934 licensed for use under Creative Commons and bottle shots from producer websites.)