Wine of the Week 46 – it’s Zinfandel, but not as most people imagine it

Zinfandel is a wonderful grape variety, that is pretty hard to pin down – in many different ways. What it actually is and where it comes from has taken a very long time to get straight. The grape is often regarded as America’s own grape, but if any vine can make that claim it is actually the wayward Norton. Of course Zinfandel made its reputation in California, but it was a long time coming. For much of its time there Zinfandel has been regarded as a very inferior grape indeed and it has only been in the last 20 years or so that it has received the attention that it deserves.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley.

As far as we can tell, the grape that became Zinfandel was taken to the eastern United States from Europe in the 1820’s – long before the annexation of California. Records show that it was taken from the Austrian Imperial nursery in Vienna to Boston and was originally sold as a table grape in New England, but destiny called when cuttings were shipped to California to take advantage of the boom caused by the Gold Rush in 1849. That was all we knew until the 1990s when DNA testing discovered that Zinfandel was identical to the Primitivo that is widely used in Puglia, the heel of Italy.

Plavac Mali vines in the amazing Dingac vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula.

Plavac Mali vines in the amazing Dingac vineyards on the Pelješac Peninsula near Dubrovnik in Croatia.

Further investigation and DNA work then discovered that Primitivo/Zinfandel were one of the parents of the Plavac Mali grape which is used on Croatia’s Dalmation coast. The other parent was Dobričić, an incredibly obscure Croatian grape that only grows on the Dalmatian island of Šolta. This find narrowed the search down and in 2001 a vine that matched Zinfandel’s DNA was discovered in a single vineyard in Kaštel Novi north west of Split on the Croatian coast. The vine was known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, or ‘the red grape of Kaštela’. In 2011 the researchers discovered another match, this time with a grape called Tribidrag which is also used on the Dalmatian coast. Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag are as alike as different clones of Pinot Noir, or Tempranillo and Tinto Fino, but  Tribidrag is the more common name, although not much of it is left, so it too is obscure. However, records show the name has been used since at least 1518 and what’s more, Primitivo derives from the Latin for early, while Tribidrag derives from the Croatian for early – they are both early ripening grapes.

Ok, so the roots of Zinfandel are sorted, but then we have the the worry as to exactly what sort of wine Zinfandel makes. Many UK consumers assume that Zinfandel primarily makes sweetish rosé, white Zinfandel, but most of the books and wine courses tell us that it makes high alcohol (15% and more), rich, dry, spicy red wines with rich dried fruit – prune and raisin – characters. That can certainly be true of the old vine Zinfandels that are produced in the hot Central Valley areas of Amador and Lodi, but there is another, totally different style of Zinfandel in California too.

This style comes from cooler production areas nearer the coast and is more elegant – by which I mean less powerful, less of a blunt instrument, instead it has delicate fruit characters, normally red – raspberry in fact – together with some freshness too. I recently tasted a delicious example, that is very good value for money, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

California map QS 2015 watermarked

The wine regions of Sonoma - click map for a larger view.

The wine regions of Sonoma – click map for a larger view.

 

Zin2013 De Loach Heritage Reserve Zinfandel
De Loach Vineyards,
Russian River Valley, Sonoma
California
100% Zinfandel aged for a few months in American and Hungarian oak barrels. The grapes mainly come from De Loach’s own organic and biodynamically farmed vineyards, with some fruit from other, warmer areas of California. Sonoma’s Russian River Valley has a long slow even growing season that seems to coax real elegance out of Zinfandel, making the wines quite different from the usual take on the grape. The alcohol is a modest 13.5%.

The colour is a lovely deep, but bright ruby red, while the nose is scented and lifted, offering rich, intense raspberry together with black pepper, smoke and vanilla. The palate is medium-bodied, but is richly textured with rounded ripe fruit filling the mouth with flavour. Those flavours are raspberry and cracked pepper spice together with some cherry and blackberry too. While this is not the most complex Zinfandel in the world, the tannins are soft and velvety and while the fruit dominates from start to finish, making the wine juicy and soft, there is a lovely seam of freshness in the wine, that makes it deliciously drinkable too – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from Eclectic Tastes and Exel Wines, further stockist information is available from the UK distributor, Liberty Wines.
US stockist information is available here.

If your experience of Zinfandel makes you think they are all huge monsters with high alcohol, this gives a totally different take on the grape and is superb value for money too. A very food friendly wine, this is perfect with almost anything, from burgers, pastas and pizzas, to Sunday roasts and finer fare.

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