Zinfandel History

Considered California’s red-wine grape because it’s not widely grown in other parts of the world, Zinfandel vines were brought to California by Agoston Haraszthy (known as “the father of California wine”) in the 1850s. By the 1880s this variety was rapidly gaining acceptance by California growers, and it is now that state’s most extensively planted red grape. For years Zinfandel’s origins were very mysterious. A relationship between Zinfandel and Primitivo (a variety grown in Italy’s Puglia region) had been established. Outside of the Zinfandel grown in California (and Italy’s Primitivo), there are only isolated plantings of this grape-mainly in South Africa and Australia. Zinfandel is vinified in many styles, which vary greatly in quality.

One popular style is White Zinfandel, a fruity-flavored white wine that’s usually slightly sweet and ranges in color from light to dark pink. When made into red wine, Zinfandel can produce wines ranging from light, nouveau styles to hearty, robust reds with berrylike, spicy flavors, plenty of tannins and alcohol, and enough depth, complexity, and longevity to be compared to Cabernet Sauvignons. Another style is late-harvest Zinfandel, which exhibits higher alcohol levels and some residual sugar. Occasionally, Zinfandel is fortified and marketed as a California port-style wine.

It is commonly agreed that the “best” Zinfandels being produced come from Sonoma County, specifically around the Dry Creek Valley region. To a smaller extent, Napa Valley has some fine producers too. Large Zinfandel plantings exist in California’s central valley where the hot weather tends to produce lower-quality grapes, which often make their way into jug wine. As Zinfandel’s popularity increases, more and more enterprising Italian Primitivo growers are labeling their wines “Zinfandel” and exporting them to the United States.

After more than a hundred years of speculation, the mystery of the Zinfandel grape has been solved. At first it was thought that the above mentioned Mr. Haraszthy, Hungarian émigré, brought the grape to the Golden State from Hungary in the mid-19th century but, alas, he was eaten by alligators in Nicaragua before he could debunk the theory. More recently it was believed that Zinfandel came from southern Italy (where it goes by the name of Primitivo) but that didn’t pan out either. Now, with some good sleuthing and DNA technology, Zinfandel is confirmed to be the Croatian Crljenak grape.

How it came to be called Zinfandel is still a mystery but why the name was changed is pretty obvious. Another mystery, still unsolved, is why Zinfandel has remained so dear to the hearts of wine drinkers for so many years. The grape was an immediate hit with Italian immigrants, who planted it wholesale throughout Northern California. Over the years these hardy plants survived at least one phylloxera blight, Prohibition, and the recent urge of winemakers to modernize their vineyards. Some venerable vines are now more than 100 years old (stump-like vines), a few growers claim to have vines planted 150 years ago. Zinfandel, like Syrah, can be lusty and earthy, not too acidic, well behaved but wild at heart like a cowboy at a dinner party.

This accounts, in part, for its fascination as does its ability to morph into so many styles — perhaps more than any other grape. There is the claret or cabernet-like wines that can be intense and elegant, often with lots of new French oak. Next are the oversize, fruit-bomb wines that have more than enough of everything. And then there are the sweet, alcoholic, port-like powerhouses. Winemakers and growers dealing with Zinfandel here have found that it has some very special requirements. It needs a hot site with plenty of sun directly on the fruit. It tends to “over crop” (produce too much fruit) so it needs to be aggressively pruned. It needs long warm growing seasons but it is winter tender. Zinfandel needs very high sugars to make good wine (about 28 percent sugar compared to 22-25 percent for other red grapes), which is why it can produce those big monster reds. But it can easily over ripen and burst its skin.