Zinfandel—California’s Secret Weapon

One of my favorite varietals is Zinfandel, and several California vintners positively excel at producing it.  No, I’m not talking about that bland, insipid, slightly sweet rosé known as White Zinfandel.  I’m talking about the full-bodied red stuff.  Don’t get me wrong.  Rosés have their place.  Occasionally.  As a fun Summer drink best served well chilled or perhaps paired with fish, lighter meats, cream-based pasta dishes, or spicy Asian-based offerings.   But if you’re a staunch red wine advocate, it almost seems a shame to waste this great grape on anything but its heartier red incarnation.

Zinfandel is a great alternative to Cabernet-based Bordeaux-style wines or even Châteauneuf-du-Pape and its GSM cousin.  As such, it pairs quite well with many of the same foods, including red meats.  And as with Châteauneuf it can also hold its own with lighter offerings ranging from the darker game fouls (think: duck or goose) to even the more robust pork dishes (butt or shoulder roasts for example) and spicy barbeque.  Just don’t go too light or the tannins in this wine will overpower the pairing.  Chicken is pretty much out of the question, as are the whiter pork cuts if too lightly or timidly seasoned.

The grape itself has quite an interesting history. For many years it was thought native to California.  Indeed there are California vines dating back 130 years or more still producing “Ancient Vine Zinfandels.”  But we now know that it’s genetically identical to Italy’s Primitivo and very closely related to the Crljenak grape from Croatia.  Alas, that makes Zinfandel an import rather than a true, home-grown discovery.

The flavors of Zinfandel are not usually all that complex, but they are exceedingly stout and robust.  The term “jammy” is often used because of the intense, heavy, berry-like flavors that the better examples produce.  The primary berry notes are blackberry followed by raspberry and plum.  Other, more subtle perceptions include anise, cedar, and even the peppery notes more often associated with Shiraz.  And, of course, since this is a wine best aged in oak, you also get the ever-present vanilla scent typical of aged reds.  Beyond the flavors and scents, these wines are very alcohol intensive.  Don’t be surprised to see typical bottles at 14.5%, and I’ve sampled some as high as 15.5%.

My favorite examples of this varietal come from Rosenblum (especially their Rockpile Road appellation)and Seghesio (Sonoma and Alexander Valley Ranch appelations), but they’re not super-cheap.  Most examples start north of $20 a bottle and can go as high as $45.  If that’s a bit steep for your wallet, you can also get a fairly good Ancient Vine California Zinfandel  from Cline (the 2008 vintage scored 88 with Wine Spector) for around $16.

But don’t just stop at straight Zinfandel. California vintners have had great success in using Zin as a blending grape with Cabernet Sauvignon and other traditional Bordeaux varietals to produce a unique variation on the Bordeaux-style theme.  Don’t be afraid to give these tasty innovations a shot.  You’ll be glad you did, and pleasantly surprised at how well the better examples can compete against the more traditional blends.

As with many of the more tannic reds, Zinfandel does benefit from a few years cellared away at the proper temperature (around 57°F, 14°C).  Best to give your recent acquisition of this remarkable wine at least a couple of years to mature and mellow.

One last pairing tip that will surprise you and delight your guests. Try a glass of Zinfandel with chocolate, the darker the better.  For some reason Zinfandel seems to counter the bitterness of dark chocolate and the two compliment each other very well.

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