Vol. 1, No. 25, July 5, 1999
© Copyright 1999 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.
Zinfandel: More of a mystery than ever
Independence Day weekend in the United States seems as good a time as any to talk about Zinfandel, a grape that's quintessentially American even if - like most American citizens - its roots are almost certainly found in Europe.
The origins of this grape are shrouded in mystery and considerable legend. For many years, the standard story held that Count Agoston Haraszthy -- a notable and colorful figure in Northern California during Gold Rush days and indisputably a key figure in the development of the Napa Valley wine country -- brought this rare grape to the U.S. from his native Hungary some time after 1849.
As it turns out, however, very little research was needed to show that Zinfandel (or, sometimes, "Zinfindal" or even "Zeinfindall") was widely planted as a table grape in the Eastern U.S. decades before Haraszthy set foot in Napa, turning up on exhibit in a horticultural fair in Massachusetts as early as 1834.
Then wine sleuths noticed that Primitivo, a traditional grape from Apulia in the "boot heel" of Southern Italy, looked a great deal like Zinfandel and produced a somewhat similar fruity red wine. Sure enough, DNA studies at the University of California at Davis show that Zinfandel and Primitivo are identical! So, is Zinfandel Italian? Not likely. Zinfandel apparently was known in the U.S. before Primitivo grew in Italy. Did Zin make its way back to the old country, or do both grapes simply share a common ancestor? This is the latest path of inquiry, and scientists thought they might have found Zin's parent in Plavac Mali, a wine grape of Dalmatia in Croatia. Once more, though, the mystery deepens, as DNA testing indicates that Plavac Mali is a cousin, not a parent.
It's most likely that a rare vine grows someplace in the Balkans, an anonymous ancestor that gave birth to Zinfandel, an immigrant grape that came through New England on its way to become California's trademark wine, a grape that produces big, fruity and memorable wines with characteristic "bramble fruit" (blackberry and raspberry) aromas and flavors. (It's also used to make a modest blushing pink wine, White Zinfandel, that's popular in the bargain bins, but Zinfandel's amazing fruit simply doesn't come through when it's subjected to this treatment. I say stick to the red.)
Does Zinfandel benefit from aging? This question is a great way to start an argument among wine fanciers. In my experience, the best examples can be cellared for years, and given sufficient time will evolve into a subtle, complex wine not unlike an older Cabernet. But Zin is so good when it's young and ripe and full of exuberant fruit, I don't see much point in aging it.
What do you think of Zinfandel? If you're outside the U.S., do you ever see this American wine? Drop me a note at email@example.com. And, as always, don't hesitate to drop us a line if you'd like to comment on our topics and tasting notes, suggest a topic for a future bulletin, or just talk about wine.
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A basic, benchmark Zin
Clear, dark reddish-purple, with jammy blackberry fruit aromas and a touch of a green, herbaceous scent. Big and ripe, "bramble" fruit and oak, fruity and perhaps just a touch of fresh-fruit sweetness. Simple, straightforward, a wine to drink up soon, but it definitely gives a budget-priced example of what Zinfandel is all about. (July 4, 1999)
FOOD MATCH: Perfect with hickory-smoked baby back pork ribs, sizzling from the grill for a Fourth of July picnic feast.
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