By Mark Stuart
With the Labor Day holiday upon us, millions of Americans will be outdoors grilling and enjoying their time with loved ones. No wine is such a natural pair to grilled foods, friends and fun as is a bottle of the notoriously eccentric zinfandel.
Zinfandel has experienced a varied reputation and has been a source of intrigue for California wine lovers for nearly two centuries. Recent DNA testing has shown that it originated in Croatia and is a genetic clone of the Italian varietal Primitivo.
Though the history of the grape stems from Europe, it is thought of as California’s varietal because nowhere on earth is it produced as successfully or consumed as passionately. Until 1998 when it was surpassed by cabernet sauvignon, it was the most widely planted red grape.
The varietal has not always been in favor among consumers. In fact, it was in danger of becoming a minor planting in the state until in the mid 1970’s when Sutter Home Winery, purely on accident, produced the first modern “White Zinfandel.”
This relatively low-alcohol sweet-style became one of the most consumed wines in history. There are now more than 30,000 acres of Zinfandel vines planted across California.
Excellent dry red Zinfandels are jammy and mouth-watering. The fruit component is varied between red and black berries plus some “green” notes due to the typical uneven ripening of the grapes on the vine. A balanced Zin is not overtly oaky and has enough bold fruit to handle the alcohol content.
Tannins should be apparent but not dominant, in the same range of a shiraz, but definitely lower than cabernet or merlot. A quality marker is the ability to taste a spectrum of berry flavors throughout a long finish.
Late Harvest Zinfandel is made from grapes that hang on the vine for an extended period until they begin to shrivel like a raisin concentrating the natural sugar level. Traditional yeast cannot completely ferment all of this sugar, leaving it with a very high alcohol content along with noticeable sweetness. This combination creates a port like wine Zin lovers prize.
Often, Zinfandel labels will list the term “old vines.” There is no specific legal definition of this term, however in the industry it is generally understood that they are at least 40 years old, but can range to over 100 years old. These gnarled old vines produce lower quantities of what can be vividly concentrated fruit.
When purchasing dry red Zinfandel, look to see from where the grapes were sourced. A winemaker can only make wine dictated by the characteristics of the grapes with which they work. Amador and El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills produce the most vibrant of the bold styles while the Dry Creek or Russian River areas in Sonoma can yield a more refined product. Compare the alcohol content of the zinfandel you are selecting to further help determine how assertive the wine will be.
Quintessential food pairings include grilled hamburgers and chicken, but don’t limit yourself simply to the tried and true. For the gourmet, gamey meats with fruit reductions or marmalades show well with the restrained red style or try roasted chicken with mole sauce for the more wild Zins. The moderate tannins and natural acidity makes the varietal a superb food wine that can be enjoyed fresh from the retail shelf.
2005 Rombauer Zinfandel: Described by Kay Chae at Wine Time as “It’s not just the fruit which ranges from blackberry to cherry and cocoa. Soft and intense, this Zin picks up more power on the finish, YUM!” Available at Wine Time for $27. 15.5% Alcohol, 74% Sierra Foothills fruit.
2004 Black Sears Zinfandel: Patrick Ballow of Jonathan’s of La Jolla says “This vineyard is located at more than 2,000 feet of elevation. This cooler area provides a lower alcohol content while accentuating the blackberry and thistle component.” Available at Jonathan’s for $40. 14.5% Alcohol, 100% Howell Mountain fruit.