Zinfandel (ZIN-fan-dell)

For decades, zinfandel was the most widely planted red grape in California until cabernet sauvignon surpassed it in 1998. Now number two in acreage, zinfandel is a chameleon. It can be (and is) made into everything from blush wine to sweet fortified wine. But the zinfandel that knowledgeable wine drinkers love—true zinfandel—is a soft-textured dry red wine crammed with jammy blackberry, boysenberry, and plummy fruit. Made in this style, it’s usually concentrated, medium to full in body, and notorious for (temporarily) staining one’s teeth crimson if you drink enough of it. Until 1972, zinfandel was always a hearty, rustic red wine. But in that year, the large California winery Sutter Home made the first “white zinfandel”—actually light pink—by quickly removing zinfandel’s red skins before much color was imparted to the wine. Soon after its invention, white zinfandel began to outsell true (red) zinfandel—a fact that remains the case today. Yet because it is often slightly sweet and almost always mass produced from less than top-quality grapes, white zinfandel is considered a beginner’s wine by serious wine drinkers. The zinfandel grape’s history in California goes back to the 1830s when it was imported from Croatia (then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). In the 1990s, DNA typing revealed zinfandel to be the Croatian grape called, in modern times, crljenak kaštelanski. During the Middle Ages and earlier, however, the grape was called tribidrag and was grown all over the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. Linguistically speaking, it’s not known how tribidrag evolved to crljenak kaštelanski evolved to zinfandel. Moreover, in southern Italy, where it grows predominantly in the region of Apulia, the same grape has yet another distinct name: primitivo. Zinfandel vineyards are some of the oldest in California. Zinfandel vines well over a hundred years old still thrive in Amador County and Sonoma County, for example. Wines from old zinfandel vines are, in fact, especially prized, and many producers use the term “old vine” on their zinfandel labels. The term has no legal definition, but many winemakers suggest that a zinfandel vine—like a person—turns the corner, becoming “old” after forty.


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