What Does it Take to Make a Great Zinfandel?

Red Zinfandel is as Californian as food trucks and walnuts. From the mid-19th century, this grape reigned supreme along the West Coast, until the emergence of Cabernet. These days, bar a few exceptions, the varietal gets a bad rap amongst serious wine lovers, typically for being unbalanced. We're here to defend this misunderstood and underappreciated varietal. It might not be easy to grow but when producers get it right, boy, is it sensational! Here we discuss what makes this grape such a worthwhile challenge and share with you the the one stupendous Zin to make our list so far this year.

The Zinfandel Challenge

So we know that the problem is that Zin is tricky to pull off. The vines are prolific, they thrive in the California climate, but the big issue is that these black-skinned grapes ripen unevenly. It’s not uncommon to find raisins alongside unripe berries on the same tightly packed bunch. The result is either wine that’s overripe with high alcohol and baked fruit flavors, or one that’s under-ripe, acidic and, sorry to say, boring. Finding balance in a Zinfandel is like trying to balance a chair on your chin.

This is where old vines come into their own, evening out the fruit spectrum and reaching ripeness without the alcohol levels. There are a handful of superb small wineries producing first rate Zinfandel across California, Ridge Vineyards in n northern California being one of the very best.

Monte Bello, Ridge Vineyard

Monte Bello Vineyard, Ridge Vineyards, Santa Cruz (Credits: Ridge Vineyards)

The origins of this Zinfandel has had more than one historian scratching their heads--it's a story that's unfurled over many years. So before we get too much further, let's look at what we know about this intriguing grape and where it came from. 

A Brief History of Zinfandel

Tracing the roots of California’s Zinfandel grape has caused quite a stir over the years. In the early 1990s, DNA profiling showed that Zinfandel was identical to Primitivo, which is grown in the heel of Italy. The discovery had people scratching their heads at how the grape could have traveled from one place to the other. Did Italian immigrants living in the U.S. take cuttings from California to Puglia?

Cue the historians.

Austria to California: A painstaking study of old catalogues and nursery records by historian Charles L. Sullivan revealed that the vine had been imported to the East Coast in the late 1820s from the Austrian imperial nursery in Vienna. It was grown under glass as table grapes in Boston, and is then thought to have been included in a shipment of vine cuttings that was sent to prospectors-turned-farmers in California in 1849. The story doesn’t end there.  

Zinfandel Grapes

Croatia: The final breakthrough came when it was found that Zinfandel (and by default Primitivo) was one parent of the Croatian variety, Plava Mali. Thus researchers concluded that Zinfandel had to be Croatian by origin. The search for an exact match went on. Eventually, hidden away on the island of Kaštela, near Split, they found an ancient, almost extinct called Crljenak Kaštelanski (which translates as ‘red grape of Kaštela’). It turned out to be identical to Zinfandel.

Ridge Vineyard’s 2016 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel

Let's get back to that delicious wine we've been hinting at. We won't deny that it takes some dedication but finding a truly great Zinfandel is getting easier, and this one has been well worth the wait. 

Pagani Ranch, Ridge Vineyards, Zinfandel

A beautiful old-vine Zin by those master winemakers at Ridge Vineyards, Pagain Ranch, 2016 is a blend of 88% Zinfandel, 9% Petit Sirah and 3% Alicante Bouschet aged for 12 months in barrel. This vintage benefitted from winter rains and a calm spring, which provided the perfect conditions for flowering and set. Here, the concetrated fruit from the old vines blends perfectly with the softer texture of younger vines.

The result is a wine that's silky, refined and soulful. Brambles, blood orange, pomegranate and subtle hints of mint and rose petals mingle on the palate. Chalky tannins and bright acidity give way to a long, sensual finish. It's great now but will age wonderfully over the next seven to eight years.

The great news for Zin lovers and those in the know is that you can leverage the fact that Zinfandel is so often overlooked (often in favor of that big show-off Cabernet) to get your hands on a lip-smacking Zinfandel like this one for under $40.   

About Ridge Vineyard Winery, Sonoma

Set in the Santa Cruz mountains, theRidge Vineyards vines were planted in 1885 by Osea Perrone, an Italian immigrant doctor, who founded Monte Bello Winery.

After being presented with opportunities to source Zinfandel from heritage vineyards in Sonoma, the winery expanded production and purchased acreage outside of Healdsburg. Following various stewardships throughout the 40s and 60s, the first Zinfandel was produced in 1964 from a small 19th century vineyard. Since then, Ridge Vineyards have become one of the grandmasters of fine Zinfandel--this one being produced at Pagani Ranch estate in Sonoma.

Zinfandel Wine & Food Pairings

In the right hands, red Zinfandel can be bright and evocative, or loaded with black cherries, molasses and figs; restrained or extroverted. Also, it’s surprisingly agile when it comes to food pairing. This varietal loves a party and is gutsy enough to roll from a humble hot dog or burger to barbequed pork. It's also a great fan of holiday season dinners. Given that it’s identical to Primitivo, Zin also does very well with the strong flavors of Southern Italian cuisine like rigatoni with aubergine, or a good moussaka, or lamb and aubergine stew.

Ridge Vineyard’s 2016 Zinfandel truly belongs in every serious wine collector’s cellar. Full of beauty and nuance, it’s a true winemaker’s wine. Don’t be surprised if it sparks a whole new love affair (you’ve been warned).



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