Zinfandel is often called “America’s grape” because, well, we like to have something we call our own. Never mind that all grapes, like many Americans, have Europeans origins. Nothing started in this country without some seed from much older nations. Nevertheless, zinfandel is as close as we’ll ever get to having our own grape.
For years, viticulture researchers believe zinfandel was a copy of primitivo, an ancient grape of Italy. Then, it was considered a descendant of plavac mali, a grape variety of Croatia. It wasn’t until DNA was applied by geneticists in 2001, that zinfandel was formally allied with the Croatian grape crljenak kastelanski. Try to pronounce that after a couple of glasses of crljenak kastelanski.
One of the first grapes to be planted in this country by immigrants, zinfandel has the history in this country to call it ours and particularly because no one else is growing it. It got us through Prohibition and it was a bread-winner for Italian immigrants, including Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi and countless other pioneers. Zinfandel is now the third leading grape variety grown in California.
This is a good time of the year when many of us are raking leaves and getting in late-season grilling that zinfandel becomes the perfect libation. We like to take it to tailgate celebrations because its zesty, jammy flavors match up well with kielbasa, chicken wings, and other typical football fare. Put this alongside barbecue sauces and you’ll be cheering for more than the local team.
Zinfandel tends to ripen late on the vine and consequently develops more alcohol. However, producers have moderated the alcohol from a once lofty 16 percent or more to a reasonable 15 percent. Their wines are more approachable and less likely to get you into trouble.
In the right hands, zinfandel can be made to impress. Those made by Turley and Ridge, for instance, are concentrated and long-lived. Rosenblum, a zinfandel leader, makes nearly a dozen different zinfandels from vineyards ranging from Mendocino to Paso Robles. Ravenswood, too, makes a variety of extraordinary zinfandels that we enjoy year after year. Cline and Dry Creek Vineyards also concentrate on zinfandel.
Smaller producers such as Quivira, Hendry, and Biale make specially crafted and unique zinfandels.
Zinfandel made in not regions like Lodi and Amador get a lot of sun and thus favor a riper character with flavors of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cherries. Spice is often prevalent, too. The fruit can be sweet or candied. The more inexpensive versions are simple, but the more expensive zinfandels are concentrated and packed with dense fruit and tannins. One region that produces some of the best and most balanced zinfandels is Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley.
Here are some delicious California zinfandels to make you feel loyal to "our" grape:
Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Zinfandel 2014 ($27). Dry Creek Valley plays host to some of the best zinfandel vineyards in Sonoma County. We loved the jammy, fruit-forward flavors and structure of this boisterous gem. Petite sirah accounts for 14 percent of the blend.
Cline Family Cellars Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 ($11). The Lodi vines for these grapes date back 70 years and the wine represents one of the many great deals from this iconic producer who is celebrating its 35th anniversary. The source for most of its wines, the Petaluma Gap, is now its own AVA. Lots of forward raspberry and blackberry flavors. It nails the delicious meter and is a great value.
Bella Winery Lily Hill Estate Zinfandel 2014 ($40). From the Dry Creek Valley, this delicious single-vineyard wine has big, floral aromatics and dark fruit flavors. Available only through its website.
The Federalist Zinfandel 2014 ($20). Aged in bourbon barrels, this jammy zinfandel takes on a unique profile with a lot of vanilla to add to the raspberry, blackberry, and pepper flavors. The tannins are soft, thanks to these barrels, and the color is dark purple.
Carnivor Zinfandel 2015 ($15). As the name implies, this wine is for meat lovers. Bold, full-bodied, and packed with blackberry, plum flavors with a dash of chocolate and vanilla.
Zin-Phomaniac Zinfandel 2015 ($15). Hey, we just like the name and an exotic label. From Lodi, it has classic varietal fruit character: raspberry aromas, ripe plum, and blueberry flavors with hints of sweet vanilla and cedar.
Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2014 ($18). Blended with petit sirah, carignane, and other black grape varieties, the Ravenswood Old Vine is a sumptuous delight. It isn't complicated, but it is juicy with jammy blackberry and raspberry notes.
Tom Gore Vineyards Chardonnay 2015 ($15). This is an enjoyable, medium-body chardonnay that won’t set you back. It has tropical fruit and apple flavors with nice spice and a creamy texture.
Penfolds Max's Shiraz Cabernet 2015 ($25). Penfolds has introduced a new Max series named after its legendary winemaker Max Shubert who once had the guts to defy his bosses and make a bold red wine called Grange Hermitage. These wines – a cabernet sauvignon and a cabernet sauvignon blend – are no equals to Grand Hermitage, but they are offer good quality with balanced acidity and copious fruit flavors. The bottles come wrapped in a striking red plastic that is sure to make them stand out on the shelf.
Rodney Strong Estate Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc Northern Sonoma County 2016 ($19). This is for those readers who don’t want an acidic, grapefruit-flavored sauvignon blanc. A crisp blend of citrus and peach elements that doesn’t assault the palate. Good acidity but not overdone.