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Zinfandel- a challenging grape

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Today was the international "Zinfandel Day". To celebrate this versatile grape Stockholm was honored with a visit from sunny California's very own David Amadia, quite the iconic profile in the wine industry and president of Ridge Vineyard's. Ridge is considered one of the worlds highest quality producers of traditionally made, single vineyard, wines. They made history at the tasting in Paris 1996 and still Paul Draper and the team at Ridge makes legendary wines. Their Zinfandel wines from Geyserville och Sonoma-baserade Lytton Springs are fenomenal.

Mr Amadia has worked at among others renowned wine producer Sutter Home, Penfolds and Bonny Doon, and turned out to be an utter joy to listen to. Together with the Californian Wine Institute and MW Konstantin Baum we Swedish wine journalists were given the skinny on the charming zinfandel grape. And in the process we got to try some juicy, sunny, high quality Californian zinfandel wines.

For quite a few years the ampeologists, the plant experts, thought that the american zinfandel grape and the italian primitivo grape were one and the same. It turns out they are mere close relatives. The origin of Americas "own" grape variety zinfandel is instead Croatia, and the grape both primitivo and zinfandel most likely hails from is the grape crljenak kaštelanski. This tongue twister translates roughly into "small black from Kaštela".

The variety crljenak kaštelanski was almost wiped out by the infamous phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, reducing the number to just nine(!) vines. These were luckily rediscovered in 2001 on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.


However today's high-tech DNA testing and eager library digging takes us even further back and proves the origin of all of the above to be a grape by the name of tribidrag. Tribidrag is no drag at all. Instead, the variety has a quite noble past being very well regarded all the way back in the 14th century- rumor has it.

At any rate. It seems the zinfandel grape eventually made it's way out of Croatia to America's East Coast via the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria. George Gibbs, a horticulturist (professional gardner of sorts) on Long Island, allegedly received shipments of grapes from Europe between 1820 and 1829. Around this time a fun fact is that zinfandel grew extremely popular as a table grape. It was considered such a sweet, colourful and pretty grape, it was selling like hot cakes. Apparently especially around christmas!

Californian vineyard

Today, the idea that zinfandel and primitivo is the same still lingers. But both the style of the south Italian primitivo and the American zinfandel differ, as well as the actual features of the grapes. The primitivo matures earlier than zinfandel and has looser bunches. Today both the primitivo, the zinfandel and the original crljenak kaštelanski are grown experimently in California to learn more about the grape varieties similarities and differences. The project started 1992 and is called ZAP.

Zinfandel- a challenging grape

What we learned from todays lovely and educational tasting is that zinfandel needs a lot of TLC to perform and show off that racy California sense of place.

Zinfandel grapes, ripening unevenly

Firstly. The zinfandel grape ripens unevenly. Not only between the clusters, but even within the individual bunches. This is a problem as you will have some raisins on your bunches if you wait for all the grapes to be ripe, in turn giving a lot of sugar and potential alcohol. And pruny flavours. On the other hand- pick too early and some grapes will be unripe and give you bitter, green tannins.

Furthermore, zinfandel has tight clusters. This means that rain and humidity will have a hard time getting out of them and might instead very well result in the onset of the much dreaded rot.

Another challenge is that the skin is rather thin and breaks easily- the sweet juice will then attract insects and other problems in the form of various diseases. On and all, this grape variety demands attention and lots and lots of hard work in the vineyard and eventually also a very focused cellar master.

There is more but let's move on. The grape itself poses yet more challenges for the winemaker. It is unusually large. The ambitious wine grower strive to generate small grapes. Most of the flavours, the colour and the tannins comes from the skin of the grape so it is desirable with less flesh and more skin. In general, zinfandel does not either bring excessive acidity to the table, nor colour or tannins. Do we need this? Well, it is most certainly required for a more interesting, balanced and complex wine. We are not talking cheap bulk wine here. To be able to age said wine it also absolutely demands acidity, colour and tannins. A food pairing with fatty, salty food asks for a rich, well built wine aswell.

Gnarly, old zinfandel vines

Lucklily, California has quite a bit of old vines of zinfandel. This variety can get very old- over 100 years. The old and tired vine produces less, and smaller, grapes with age and this is a desierable treat due to the grapes size and relatively thin skin. The wines from these old and gnarly vines gets concentrated and flavorful, but of course the quantity goes down significantly.

Many times to help the end result, the wine maker adds a few procent of other varieties to up the wines game. The Californian winemaker has some favourite grapes that does well in the local terroir, and adds structure to the zinfandel wines; Alicante bouchet adds colour, cinsault gives acidity and petit sirah(durif) contributes with backbone, spice and tannins.

The wide variety of wines we were offered to taste and compare today was extremely helpfull in understanding the essence of the zinfandel grape. We were introduced to AVA's (American Viticultural Area) like Sonoma valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Lodi, Napa valley, North Coast and Central Coast among others and the styles of their wines varied much. Always charming, always expressive and always with great fruit, zinfandel is quite the chameleon. Depending on the micro climate, the soil, the proximity to mountain ridges or the presens of the pacific sea breeze it can display a more linear, serious and firm side, or on the other side of the spectrum- a sunny, playfull, generous and spicy one.

Well, I'm hooked!

Wines tasted:

2017 Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel

2017 Turley Wine Cellars Juvenile Zinfandel

2017 Frog's Leap Zinfandel

2017 Marietta cellars Román estate Grown Zinfandel

2017 Birichino Saint Georges

2017 Bedrock Wine Co. Heritage Red

2016 Seghesio Family Vineyards Cortina Zinfandel

2014 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel

2017 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville

2005 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville

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