Red Zinfandel is one of America’s most popular wines. It’s bold and flavorful, with heavenly aromas and just a hint of spice. It has a complex and interesting history and plenty of wonderful features for everyone to enjoy.
What is Red Zinfandel?
Red Zinfandel is a red wine with a variety of fruit flavors as well as other aromas. It is commonly called Primitivo or Morellone in Italy and Crljenak Kastelanski or Tribidrag in Croatia. The acidity is medium or medium-high as are the tannins. It should be served at room temperature for the best experience.
Fruit flavors in red zinfandel include black cherry, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, black plum, black currant, Apricot, Fig, and cranberry jam. Other aromas you might find are star anise, licorice, black pepper, smoke, and black cardamom.
Flavors added during oak aging include coconut, peach yogurt, nutmeg, vanilla, burnt sugar, mocha, cinnamon, coffee, tobacco, fresh sawdust, and clove.
You may compare Red Zinfandel to similar varieties of wine like Blaufrankish, Negroamaro, Plavic Mali, Grenache, Barbera, Counoise, or Sangiovese. Sometimes Red Zinfandel is also used to make California blends like Merlot, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon. In Italy, it’s blended with Puglia grapes to make Negroamaro.
History of Red Zinfandel
Zinfandel grapes are grown in California and Primitivo grapes are grown in Italy. However, they are exactly the same. There’s an interesting story behind these two names for the same grape. They both originated in Croatia, where they are called Tribidrag or Crljenak Kastelanski.
These grapes by two different names grew simultaneously in both California and Italy for about 200 years before we discovered they were the same thing in the 1960s. We didn’t trace their roots back to Croatia until even later in 2001.
This grape adventure started in the eighteenth century with a priest who had a love of great wine. Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati sources his grapes from the Tribidrag grape in Croatia and brought it back home to Liponti, Italy where you planted and grew it.
Due to the early ripening of these grapes, he started calling it Primitivo, which means ‘the first one,’ and it stuck. The grapes grew well in the climate and were easy to manage, so they spread throughout Italy rapidly.
During this same time of growth in Italy, the same Tribidrag grape came to Boston in 1829. The horticulturist George Gibbs took possession of this grape and used it as a table grape. He called it by its Hungarian name tzinifandli or Zenfendal.
After Gibbs moved the grape to California in 1850 for the gold rush, he planted them and used them to make wine. Zinfandel popularity in the area grew almost overnight and was the most commonly produced wine variety in America.
Despite all of this popularity, neither Italy nor the United States knew that these grapes were one and the same. The first time anyone raised suspicions about these wines was in 1967. University of California Davis Professor Austin Goheen noticed on a visit to Puglia, Italy that Primitivo tasted surprisingly like Zinfandel.
When Primitivo came again to California in 1968, studies found that the grapes were identical. When Carole Meredith continued the research of this grape in the 1990s, she discovered Croatia as the original but didn’t yet know which grape it came from.
After collecting more than 150 vines and analyzing them, she was finding no luck. At different points during the research, her team thought it might have been Plavac Mali, but Zinfandel is actually the child of this variety.
After more than ten years of research and fifty years after discovering that Primitivo and Zinfandel are the same, they finally landed on the Crljenak Kastelanski grape origins despite the fact that there are only 9 vines of this variety that exist in Croatia in a vineyard full of thousands of other kinds of grapes.
Red Zinfandel Recommendations
In some cases, your favorite wine variety is only your favorite wine variety if it’s grown, processed, and bottled in its country of origin. Fortunately for Zinfandel lovers, Red Zinfandel is genuine whether it’s grown in Italy or California. Here are some of the best California varieties for you to try.
Artezin Mendocino Zinfandel 2016
Artezin wines began in 2002 when Randle Johnson perfected the art of California Zinfandel after thirty years of work. It’s a challenging grape to grow. In fact, it’s almost as hard as Pinot Noir. It can quickly over-crop and develop residual sugars, making it taste too syrupy sweet like root beer or jam.
Johnson produces a wonderful Red Zinfandel variety with aromas of cherry, boysenberry, and pomegranate. Sweet brown spices round out the flavor with fine tannins and bright acidity. It’s soft and fresh on the palate.
Green & Red Chiles Canyon Vineyards Zinfandel 2014
This canyon is named for the red and green soil it contains. These vineyards reside in the eastern hills of the Chiles Valley District in Napa Valley. They were planted in 1972 and comprise three different mountainous vineyards with many different elevations. This adds endless complexity and interest to the wines they produce.
The Zinfandel is a great blend of grapes from each vineyard and has raspberry and dark cherry notes with a taste of cloves on the palate for a zesty and bright flavor that’s refreshing and fun.
Easton “E” Fiddletown Zinfandel 2012 and Easton Amador County Zinfandel 2014
Bill Easton founded Easton Wines in 1986, but the wines have been in the Shenandoah Valley since 1850. The climate and soil conditions are perfect for creating wines without residual sugar and it prevents over-ripening.
Dry farming, rocky soils, and proximity to mountains also help the wine retain acidity. These grapes used for the Easton “E” Fiddletown Zinfandel are from the region’s oldest vineyard where the vines have an average age of 100 years. It’s an elegant wine with aromas of dark cherry, lavender, and perfume.
The Easton Amador County Zinfandel is made from grapes of only 50 years old, but they bring forward fruit flavors with bright spiciness to the wine.
Peachy Canyon 2015 Westside Zinfandel
Doug and Nancy Beckett founded Peachy Canyon in Paso Robles in 1988. Their Zinfandel flagship varietal is joined by Rhome and Bordeaux options as well. After winemaker Robert Henson joined the winery, he added a Pinot Noir to their selection.
However, Zinfandel is a favorite of his and he brings dark fruit aromas with flavors of huckleberry and strawberry to the Westside Zinfandel. This lush wine also contains cloves, nutmeg, and allspice.
Chronic Cellars Dead Nuts 2016
There’s more to this wine than a funny name. Josh and Jake Beckett are the sons of the Peachy Canyon owners, and they created Chronic Cellars to carry on a family tradition. They have creative names and colorful labels that attract many wine connoisseurs who take wine seriously, but also enjoy having a good time.
Paying homage to the walnuts and almonds that were planted on this land before the vineyards, this Dead Nuts Zinfandel has bright pomegranate and boysenberry aromas with powerful, lingering acidity.
The Best Food Pairings for Red Zinfandel
You can always enjoy Red Zinfandel alone, but here are some tips for pairing it with food, in case you’re hungry, too.
Because Red Zinfandel is a sweeter red wine, it pairs well with spicy foods. Try barbeque with a kick, curry dishes, or spaghetti with a zesty sauce. And here’s a pro tip. Taste the wine first and see if you can identify any spices. Use those same spices in your cooking.
Red Zinfandel goes well with light meats like pork, quail, lamb, veal, ham, and turkey. Try serving it with your Thanksgiving or Christmas meal.
Spices and Herbs
Try your Red Zinfandel with foods that include spices like rosemary, garlic, ginger, cayenne, clove, turmeric, curry, nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, cocoa, coriander, black pepper, saffron, and fennel.
For a casual get together with snacks, serve your Red Zinfandel with hard and rich cheeses like Cheddar, Trentingrana, or Manchego. Choose herbaceous crackers with a hint of sea salt, olive oil, and rosemary.
Flavorful vegetables like red peppers, roasted tomato, squash, caramelized onion, peach, apricot, cranberry, beets, spiced apple, and cranberry go well with copious glasses of Red Zinfandel.
Red Zinfandel Recipes
There are plenty of affordable varieties of Red Zinfandel out there if you want to try your hand at cooking with a bottle. In fact, there are a few delicious recipes out there that include some of the food pairings we have already talked about.
Light meats like lamb are great pairing options for Red Zinfandel, but instead, you could try braising your lamb in Red Zinfandel first. Not only is the braised, smoky flavor enhanced by the wine, but the dried fruit flavors echo those contained in the wine as well.
For Italian night, try a Zinfandel spaghetti recipe. The herbs and spices in the sauce are made perfect by the same herbaceous flavors in the wine and you’ll enjoy this rich and hearty meal with glass alongside your place.
So What’s the Difference Between Red and White?
If you’ve never tried Red Zinfandel, you may still have already tried the white variety, which is infinitely more popular. Despite being snubbed by wine aficionados for its poor production quality, it sells at a much higher volume. This is likely due to its smooth, fruity, easy-drinking characteristics.
However, White Zinfandel isn’t actually white. It’s a rose-colored wine that’s much lighter than its red counterpart. This lighter version of Zinfandel is easily accessible for beginners with low alcohol content and a small price tag.
Red Zinfandel has a deeper, more complex profile and is made with more consideration and care for the result. White Zinfandel is often made with the reject grapes that didn’t make the cut, but chances are, you’ll still enjoy a bottle if you try. There are also sparkling varieties of each if you need some extra bubbles.
Fun Facts About Red Zinfandel
As if you didn’t already know enough about Red Zinfandel, here are some fun facts you might find…interesting.
- Zinfandel ages gracefully. As Zinfandel wines age, they taste very hot, that is to say, alcoholic. They are best at 3-5 years vintage, but if it’s well-made, it’s structure improves with age just like Cabernet.
- Zinfandel and White Zinfandel come from the same grape. Many people think they are different, but they are actually the same. The difference is in the production.
- White Zinfandel saved Red Zinfandel. When Sutter Home made their famous White Zinfandel in 1972, it became extremely popular. While it’s still considered an entry-level wine, its popularity ensured that, even when Red Zinfandel fell out of favor in the late 1970s, the old vines were not grafted over.
- People love Zinfandel. Both varieties, in fact. Zinfandel even has ZAP, it’s official promotional organization.
- Zinfandel has wings. And no, they’re not trying to knock off Red Bull’s slogan. Zinfandel grapes often grow wings of grape clusters out to the side of the main vine.
Drinking Red Zinfandel
If you’ve never tried Red Zinfandel, it’s high time you did. Whether you’ve already had some entry-level whites already or not, Red Zinfandel is rich, bold, and flavorful. It pairs well with many hearty dishes and can be enjoyed on its own.
It has many complex flavors and aromas, and it is one of California’s most popular grapes, so even if you don’t enjoy the first one you try, keep being adventurous. There are plenty of options out there from many different vineyards, and you’re bound to find your favorite with a little more searching.