The Astor Wines & Spirits Glossary

Zinfandel

Zinfandel is widely thought of as “America’s grape,” but in fact the variety is of Croatian origin, and is genetically extremely similar to Italian Primitivo, which thrives in the warmest parts of southern Italy. Like Primitivo, Zinfandel requires warm but not hot growing conditions, as its skins are relatively thin: this can cause its berries to shrivel into raisins if left on the vine a little too long. Dry and well-drained terroirs are also preferable for Zinfandel, as its bunches are relatively delicate and prone to grape rot.

Though Zinfandel is widely vinified as a lightly sweet rosé wine (white Zinfandel), its most notable incarnations are big, highly alcoholic, not very subtle, dry but exceedingly fruit-forward red wines. Zinfandels tend to be best in their youth, but with aging, many Zinfandels develop a more refined sense of balance. The berry fruit tends to fade after a few years and, unlike with other varieties, it is rarely replaced with anything as interesting or appealing.

Production Regions

Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley
Zinfandel does well in many parts of California, as long as the climate is arid and the vines aren’t over-cropped. Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley remains the region to seek out for the most voluptuous examples of this wine. The valley cut by Dry Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, offers ideal drainage for Zinfandel vines; the dry and somewhat rocky terrain serves to concentrate fruit flavors, making the wines both densely textured and intensely fruited.

San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles
Paso Robles generally offers more structured, sun-baked, and alcoholic examples of Zinfandel than the subtler Zins of Dry Creek Valley. San Luis Obispo is quite a bit farther south along the California coast than Sonoma, and therefore hotter, drier, and wilder. This inland plain is the home of many parcels of old-vine Zin that excel in this particular terroir.

Flavor Profile

The most commonly cited characteristics of Zinfandel are flavors and aromas of black cherry, blackberry, raspberry, and boysenberry; spices often include black pepper, cloves, anise, and herbs. Fans of Zinfandel laud these wines for their overwhelming body and voluptuousness, the result of high alcohol content without too much tannin or acidity. When properly cultivated, Zinfandel is capable of expressing great depth and complexity, often offering hidden depths of cedar and chocolate.

Food Pairings

Because many Zinfandels are so voluptuous as to offer the illusion of sweetness, they are a good match for spicy barbeque and can even be successfully paired with Mexican food. On the other hand, because Zins are often more about big fruit than structure (meaning tannin and acidity, two food-friendly attributes wines can have), they make good “cocktail wines” and can easily be consumed on their own. At up to 16% alcohol, though, you’ll want to be careful.

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