Photo of Zinfandel on the vine from tibchris at Flickr and used under the Creative Commons license.

This page provides a little information on the Zinfandel grape and its subsequent wines, including the “Who” (we are focusing on), “What” (the grape is and its genetic makeup), “When” (it was first cultivated or cross-bred), “Why” (it is so popular), “Where” (it is grown) and “How” (to serve it).

Who: Zinfandel

What: A red grape, researchers at the University of California, Davis (my alma mater!) in a partnership with researchers from the University of Zagreb in Croatia determined that Zinfandel is the offspring of a Croatian grape called Plavac Mali and an ancient variety from the Adriatic island of Solta called Dobricic. In Croatia it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Zinfandel is also a genetic clone of the Italian grape Primitivo, meaning that the two may have genetically been the same grape at some point, but over time mutated into their current forms (grapes do this often).

When: Primitivo was introduced to Italy in the 18th century and was brought to the United States in the mid 19th century. Miners enticed by the California Gold Rush of the mid 1800s brought the grape with them when they traveled to the West Coast, where Zinfandel found a climate and soil where it thrives.

Why: Zinfandel is known for its incredibly high alcohol content (around 15%), making it a very robust wine.

Where: Zinfandel is the official rustic grape of California. Ten percent of all grapes grown in California are Zinfandel.  In Italy, it is grown in the Puglia region (the heel of the boot, for those who aren’t too familiar with Italy’s regions).

How: Zinfandel and barbecue are a perfect combination. The sweetness of the barbecue sauce and the grilled meats and their charred flavor stand up against this robust, high-in-alcohol wine.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the variety is how different it can be depending on its climate: cooler region Zinfandel typically exhibits raspberry flavors, while warmer climate Zinfandel (with riper grapes that have a higher level of sugars) exhibit blackberry, anise, and pepper. They are excellent with Middle Eastern spices and gyros as well.

Zinfandel is the second most planted grape in California, (outgrown only by Cabernet Sauvignon), but because it is not found in many other places in the world, it is known as a mainly California grape. (In fact, it is the official “rustic” grape of California, but not “the” official grape: Cab producers would not allow Zinfandel to hold this title).

Zinfandel is a fun grape because it can vary so much in flavor and structure. Some Zins are light and fruity; others are very hearty, with big berry flavors and/or pepper, high tannins and alcohol, and a full body that places them in the realm of full-bodied wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. Just as California tends to make other wines with very big, bold flavors—like we saw with Chardonnays and Pinots—California Zins can often be very fruity and high in alcohol. On the nose, you can easily detect this alcohol: there is a “heat” in the aroma that is a tell-tale sign of a wine that is high in alcohol. And, (in case anyone cares), a scientist from Davis–in conjunction with two scientists from the University of Zagreb–recently discovered that the Zinfandel grape originated in (of all places!) Croatia. I recently met the Croatian scientists, Ivan Pejic and Edi Maletic, that made this discovery… very cool!