The History of the Zinfandel Grape

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20297WNE.jpgFew grape varieties can match Zinfandel for its complex, mysterious past, ability to polarize drinkers, and rollercoaster ride of popularity in its various guises. Zinfandel as a grape is unique in that it's quite rare to be planted in just one New World region: California. South Africa has its native crossing Pinotage, and Argentina the musky Torrontes, but Zinfandel's ability to adapt itself to changing tastes while gathering a passionate army of admirers is unparalleled.

Zinfandel's history in the United States dates back to the mid-19th century, or even earlier, as there is mention of it as 'Zenfendel' and 'Zinfindal' among East Coast growers in the 1830s. Along with the California Gold Rush of the 1850s it moved out West where it was planted in both Napa and Sonoma. DNA profiling has actually shown that Zinfandel is the same grape as the Primitivo of southern Italy. Indeed, it is likely that Primitivo was imported there from the US. However, the grape's origins have recently been traced back to the beautiful Adriatic coast of Croatia. In 2001 it was established that the obscure and ancient variety Crljenak Kaštelanski, found only on a small island near Split, is in fact the Zinfandel we know today.
As California grew in population in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Zinfandel became its most widely planted grape. While it was valued for its ability to produce large crops of grapes it was also planted in the most favorable sites for quality wine production.

Zinfandel's greatest resource, arguably, are the many acres of old vines that thrive in parts of California. These gnarled, stumpy plants are part of the fascination for serious Zin drinkers; some vineyards date as far back as the Gold Rush era. The best places to find these ancient treasures are in the Sierra foothills but "old vine" Zinfandel is widely available in the Lodi area. Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County is home to some of the most prized old Zinfandel vineyards in California. As a vine, Zinfandel thrives in warm, dry conditions, producing sumptuously rich, deeply colored wines with great intensity and character.

The popularity of big red Zins has ensured that these shy-yielding old vines are safe from being ripped out and replaced with more fruitful crops. The abundance of fruit - dark jammy plums, bramble jelly, and juicy cranberries - and those sweet peppery spice flavors of cinnamon and clove are the crave-able flavors Zin lovers enjoy. Throw in chocolate, vanilla, black olive, bay leaf, and so on, and you can see why good Zinfandel is a wine for hedonists!

Zinfandel is one of the few wines that can pair well with turkey and all the festive trimmings, but Thanksgiving and Holiday aren't the only times you can joy a good Zin. The bigger, brawnier versions match perfectly with any roasted or barbecued red meats, or even mature, hard cheeses. More medium bodied styles are great with pizza, tomato-based pasta dishes, and grilled pork or chicken. So Zinfandel really is a wine for all seasons.


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