This is part of a series called Wine Words, a glossary in the works that breaks down the barrier between those in the wine know and those who have no idea what the hell everyone's talking about. A new word posts once a week, covering everything from a grape name or region, to a winemaking or tasting term.
Zinfandel (n.) Grape variety
As I wrote earlier this week, zinfandel is, in a sense, America's national wine grape - unofficially of course. But because its true identity was a mystery for so long and it thrived so well in Northern California, bragging rights went uncontested, despite the variety being a species native to Europe, not North America. It first arrived on American shores in the early 1800s on the East Coast, probably in a batch of assorted vinifera cuttings from Austria. By 1860 it was planted in both Napa and Sonoma counties in California where it quickly became prized for its ability to produce claret style wines. Fast forward to the 1980s, the grape became synonymous with White Zinfandel, the blend of mostly zin made in a sweet style that dominated the American wine market. It's been a long trek back to respectability, with a hiccup of over-cropped, high alcohol and high extraction reds from hotter parts of the state during the 1990s and early 2000s. It was in the last decade of the 20th century that viticulturists were able to apply DNA testing to the zin vine and discover that it was identical to the primitivo grape of Italy's Puglia region. Further research by UC Davis' Carole Meredith and collaborators discovered another perfect match, and the origin of zinfandel, on Croatia's Dalmatian coast in 2001. It is one and the same as the crljenak kaštelanski [tsril-yeh-nak kah-steh-lahn-skee] grape.
According to data shared by Dry Creek Valley zin producer Clay Mauritson in a conversation with Pig&Vine last week, " In 2004, there were 42,000 acres of zinfandel in the state of California. In 2012, there were 46,000." In other words, zinfandel acreage has remained fairly steady over the last 50 years or so. Most Americans now understand - and appreciate - the dry rosé market, which suggests that perhaps less blush-style zin is being made and more serious age-worthy reds are in the fermentation tank. Or maybe production has remained steady and the rosy-hued saccharine swill is being guzzled off-radar by funnel wielding sorority girls across the midwest. Even so, producers like Mauritson Family Vineyards have been growing zin for nearly 150 years, and their Sonoma County neighbor Ridge Vineyards has been bottling single vineyard designated zins since the early 1960s. Some stay the course.
Zinfandel is a difficult grape to grow, with small closely-packed berries and thin skins, it's prone to bunch rot and a level of uneven ripening that surpasses that of other varieties, including Northern California's most widely planted red grape, cabernet sauvignon. Clay says it's partly the shape of the bunch itself. Once the primary bunch of berries have reached their maximum size, but before they begin to change color (aka verasion), the vine produces two additional bunches on top of that bunch, creating what grape growers call "shoulders". Those shoulders draw energy away from the primary bunch, leaving the situation a bit trickier when it comes to homogenized ripening. This is one reason why even the most restrained zin producers turn out wines with rich dark fruit qualities and voluptuous body. You can see the smaller bunch stacked on the primary one in the image below.
Because of zinfandel's staying power over the decades, curious producers have begun to discover old abandoned plantings in places like Lodi, which got its reputation for producing the heady syrup-style cheap reds that turned so many of us off to zin. And by old, we're talking 70, 80, 90, 100 years old. That's old vine wine. The other thing we're beginning to see in California is a search for ideal site selection for all varieties, zin included. When Mauritson and Ridge talk about single vineyards cuvées, they're talking about carefully farmed plots that demonstrate distinct nuances in the wine. This thinking is more akin to Burgundy, and I'm fascinated to see where we will go from here.