Getting to know the last grape in the alphabet: In 2006, lawmakers pressed hard to have Zinfandel declared the ‘state grape’ of California, drafting a bill and presenting it to then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for approval. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Ranked third in popularity after Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Zinfandel’s affiliation with California, from both an historical and contemporary perspective, is undeniable. In the twenty-first century, it has become the grape collectors and wine enthusiasts have come to identify as quintessentially Californian.
But is Zinfandel truly Californian? While the grape has been cultivated throughout much of the state since the 1870s, its true origins have only recently been discovered. Through DNA fingerprinting, oenologists—thanks to the efforts of Dr. Carole Meredith during her tenure at the University of California at Davis (UCD)—now know that Zinfandel is actually the same grape as Primitivo, one of the most important full-bodied workhorse varietals in Puglia, the provincial ‘heel’ of southern Italy. Even more important, it was recently discovered that the original birthplace of Zinfandel/Primitivo is not even Italy, but present-day Croatia. Hailing from various Dalmatian islands along the Croatian coastline in the Adriatic, the exact vine was discovered to be one named Crljenak Kaštelanski—the first word is pronounced ‘tsurl-yen-nak.’
So what does this mean for Californian winegrowers and fervent admirers of Zinfandel? Does this revelation make Zinfandel any less California-specific? Hardly, for few would disagree that California, not Puglia or Dalmatia, has done more for Zinfandel than any other place in the world. Seriously, is there any other place one can think of where Zinfandel is crafted to such fruity sumptuousness, such darkly fragrant and incense-driven lustre, such alcoholic potency and length, agreeable when the wine is in balance?
So let’s take a closer look at this marvellous grape. Found throughout many winegrowing regions of California, Zinfandel usually performs best in warm conditions and long growing seasons. Indeed, there are few other grapes that seem to tolerate heat so well, with excessive ripeness seeming almost a non-factor in the eyes of many top growers. In fact, some have even claimed high potential alcohol to be an actual prerequisite for the crafting of great Zinfandel. However, as with all other types of wine, the ratio of opinion-to-qualitative execution will vary from winemaker to winemaker.
Of soils, while Zinfandel doesn’t seem particularly fussy about where it is planted, the best examples often hail from poor, well-drained hillsides, with places of greater mineral content proving additionally advantageous. However, for most winegrowers (excepting Ridge’s Paul Draper), soil conditions are considered secondary to the actual age of the vine. In particular places throughout California, the most sought-after grapes are those from vines over fifty years old. Compared to their younger siblings, the oldest Zinfandel vines provide for such greater intensity, sumptuousness, flavour, and additional cellaring potential that collectors and enthusiasts seldom have trouble figuring out which is which.
So where does the best Zinfandel come from? For all intents and purposes, the most famous is probably Dry Creek Valley, located in northern Sonoma. This is where some of the most potent old-vine versions are made, benefitting from the region’s hot days and cool nights (particularly on the eastern side of the valley), with temperatures becoming increasingly warmer as one heads north from Healdsburg. Located on benchlands, the best sites tend to have a mixture of gravel and red clays, making for good drainage and reduced risk of rot. Other AVAs in Sonoma to watch out for are Alexander Valley and, on occasion, Russian River Valley. This said, many Sonoma producers will often source grapes from multiple AVAs to craft a superior wine. This means that many of the best wines will often simply be labelled as ‘Sonoma County.’
The same applies to many of the best versions throughout the Napa Valley. Even more so than Sonoma, the most premium bottlings are oftentimes excellent: full-bodied, plummy, and carrying just an extra speck of acidity that seems to improve the wine beyond measure. Just as intriguing is the fact that the best producers are often those whose primary speciality are Cabernet-blends, not Zinfandel.
Another bastion for the grape is Mendocino County, the most northerly fine winegrowing region in California. As in most other places, the first vines were planted on hillsides over a century ago by Italian immigrants. And while Mendocino Zinfandels might not be the best known, the finest examples are often of remarkable quality, not to mention well priced.
The same applies for those of the Lodi AVA, located south of Sacramento. Like Mendocino, there are few famous names here, though the area is littered with fantastic old-vine plantings. Soils here are washed down from the Sierras, and the best bottlings are agreeably full-bodied and supple. Further east in the Sierra Foothills, even more powerful versions in the Amador vicinity can be found: full-bodied, sumptuous, and packing quite an alcoholic wallop.
Finally, the gargantuan Paso Robles AVA in San Obispo County is home to some of the most forceful Zinfandels in California, similar in style to those found around Amador and just as imposing; though the more balanced versions will also reflect the former’s hot days and maritime evenings. As with virtually all other plantings in California, the best wines will be sourced from dry-farmed old vines, planted many decades ago by Italian trailblazers. Like Zinfandel, where would California winemaking be without the Italian influence?
By and large, the best Zinfandels can be cellared for a fairly long time, up to fifteen years in some cases. Still, most people prefer to drink their wines young, when such aromas as blackberries, currants, cherries, berries, incense, and plummy black fruits are at their fullest abundance. Other scents to pick up in young Zinfandels are baked fruits, licorice, rose petals, mocha, toasted oak, and spice.
Like other wines, more mature Zinfandels will often lose their primary fruits, featuring more savoury nuances that often include tobacco, cigarbox, and more texturally creamy characteristics. While decanting is always recommended for young wines, older Zinfandel seems to demand it. A temperature range of 16-18°C for premium examples is probably your best bet. Whether the same rule applies for Crljenak Kaštelanski is anyone’s guess.