Zinfandel in America or Primitivo in Italy has a mixed reputation. From bold, high alcohol red wines to sweet pink rosé Zinfandel might not suit everyone’s tastes. However, when carefully produced the wines can be interesting with powerful aromatics and a rich structure.
A popular red grape in California due to its high-yielding properties. It was thought to be a uniquely American variety until DNA profiling in the early 1990s showed that it was actually identical to an unusual grape found in southern Italy- Primitivo. Further, analysis led many to believe that Zinfandel was originally from Croatia. In Croatia, it is called Plavic Mali and is one of the countries best red varieties. However, it was found that Plavic Mali was actually a cross between ancestral Zinfandel and another Dalmatian variety Dobričić.
Zinfandel produces big wines. During the ripening period sugar quickly accumulates and the resulting wines can often be over 15% abv (even up to 17%abv.). when fermented to dryness. Many producers often leave some residual sugar (sugar not fermented into alcohol) to balance out the otherwise overpowering alcohol. The full-bodied wines generally have medium to high levels of tannin but they are almost always ripe without any ‘green’ astringency. One of the downfalls of Zinfandel is the relatively low levels of acidity. This means the wines can often feel unbalanced and a little flabby.
Zinfandel ripens very unevenly. This means when it is time to harvest some of the bunches will be green and under ripe while others will be shrivelled and raisin-like. Many producers have used this to their advantage, picking some overripe and some under-ripe fruit to create a flavour and structure balance.
American oak suits Zinfandel. The bold fruity flavour can hold up to the strong vanilla and coconut flavours. However, oak can quickly become overpowering so it is important to use a restrained approach.
White Zinfandel divides the masses. Some love the sweet pink liquid, others despise it! No matter the opinion it is a popular style of rosé. The red grapes have a short maceration (time on the skins) to extract the pink colour from the skins anthocyanins (colour pigments). The fermentation then continues as it would of white wine. The fermentation is stopped early retaining some of the sugar preventing the wine from becoming overly alcoholic.
Once thought to be the only home of Zinfandel many producers still believe this to be true. In fact, there is a club called ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) who are dedicated to Zinfandel. Zinfandel is grown throughout California but mainly concentrated to the warmer inland sites where more premium varieties struggle.
‘Old Vine Zin’ is a popular higher-quality term used for wines produced from Zinfandel vines that are over 50 years old. This clever marketing technique has established California as the most premium area for Zinfandel.
California, specifically the Central Valley is where the vast majority of white Zinfandel is produced.
Thought to have originated from Southern Italy Primitivo is a popular variety in the warmest Italian areas. It is also used to make Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale DOCG wine in Puglia. This sweet wine was the first DOCG in Puglia.
In Croatia ‘Zinfandel’ is called Plavac Mali. The Dalmatian Coast is particularly important for the variety and is where many of the best wines are produced. While the varieties are not genetically identical many still believe that Croatia is where ancestral Zinfandel originated from.