When I lived in New York, I knew about Zinfandel; I occasionally even drank Zinfandel. But for me ― as, I suspect, for most New Yorkers ― it was just another wine, no more special than Italian Chianti or Chilean Merlot. That all changed when I moved to the West.
I think Westerners have a passion for Zinfandel not found anywhere else in the country. (Our gain.) For Zinfandel, more than any other grape variety, is tied to the history of the American West. It first gained prominence here after the Gold Rush, as legions of men who didn't get rich turned to agriculture and viticulture. Then, the leading variety was the so-called Mission grape, first brought by the Spanish colonists to Mexico and later by Catholic priests and missionaries (hence its name) to California. But Mission made merely tolerable wine, and as the West boomed, so did its thirst for something more lively, more satisfying, more delicious. Zinfandel was one of the answers.
And in many ways, it has remained the West's "answer" for more than a century. Today, it's the third leading red wine grape in planted acreage (49,700), after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Ironically, it turns out that Zinfandel's native home is, in fact, in Europe ― Croatia to be exact. Last December, researchers at the University of California at Davis determined that Zinfandel is the same as the Croatian grape Crljenak kastelanski. (It's a pretty safe bet we'll continue calling it Zinfandel.)
Whatever its origin, Zinfandel has a twofold appeal: First, the grape is all about immediate gratification. Zinfandel is juicy, jammy, lip-smacking, mouth-filling, and packed with dark berry flavors. What's not to like? Second, Zinfandel spans the seasons like no other red. On the one hand, it's warming and dense ― a true comfort wine for fall and winter evenings (like tonight) when you're cooking a roast or a stew. But the wine is also great in the summer, when it becomes a magic match for grilled meats.
To be honest, Zinfandel also has an ugly side. The grape is notoriously good at producing high levels of sugar the longer it's left to ripen. Since all that sugar eventually turns into alcohol, Zinfandel can become a huge oaf of a wine, so full of alcohol that it smells like a nurses' station in a hospital. The best winemakers balance that power with underlying elegance. Powerful elegance? Elegant power? If these are oxymorons, then, with Zinfandel at least, oxymorons taste best.
SOME TOP ZINS
Many producers make a number of different Zinfandels, so experiment with several from a single winery to decide which you like best. Here are some of my favorites. Prices are for the current vintage and may vary according to location.
A. Rafanelli Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley, CA), $28.
BV Beaulieu Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley), $14.
D-Cubed Zinfandel (Napa Valley), $25.
Dry Creek Vineyard "Heritage Clone" Zinfandel (Sonoma County), $15.
Lolonis Zinfandel (Redwood Valley, Mendocino), $18.
Ridge "Geyserville" Zinfandel (Geyserville, CA), $30.
Terra d'Oro by Montevina SHR Field Blend (Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, and Barbera; Amador County, CA), $24.
Trinchero Family Estates Montevina Zinfandel (Amador County), $10.