There’s something singularly Californian about this rich, spicy wine. Although recent genetic research shows Zin originated along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, it’s long been regarded as the Golden State’s own variety, and no more so than in its historical home, Sonoma County.
By the 1880s, Zinfandel was well known to Sonoma vintners. Many of these winemakers were of Northern Italian heritage and settled the county because its Mediterranean climate and golden hills reminded them of Tuscany or Piedmont.
But it’s not likely that anyone from that era produced a wine that could properly be called “Zinfandel.”
That’s because, unlike today, the old-timers weren’t interested in individual grape varieties. Instead, they wanted a red wine that was hearty and delicious—perfect to wash down beef and pasta with zesty tomato sauce.
To get that, they interplanted many different varieties, not just Zinfandel, but Carignan, Alicante Bouschet, Mataro, Petite Sirah, Trousseau and others.
Because each variety ripens at a different time, they could harvest at least some of their crop before the autumn rains. And, if they could successfully ripen all their grapes, the different flavors made a more complex wine.
Today, we call these wines “field blends.” They’re still produced, in small quantities, by vintners lucky enough to get their hands on these gnarled vines—some more than 100 years old—that have managed to elude the bulldozers of suburban development.
Trends and Styles
As a variety, Zinfandel goes through phases. Like fashion, one year it’s in, the next, out.
Considering the different styles of Zin over the years—white Zin; rosé Zin; carbonically macerated Zin as fresh as Beaujolais nouveau; sweet, Port-style Zin; even sparkling Zin—it’s a wonder that Americans haven’t simply thrown away their corkscrew in confusion.
But they haven’t, and today, Zinfandel is more popular than ever.
It’s a highly adaptable grape. Although it needs sunshine and heat to ripen, it will tolerate a wide range of conditions.
It grows well in the hot, interior sections of the Alexander Valley, northward from Geyserville to Cloverdale, producing wines of heady strength and blackberry/chocolaty lusciousness.
Yet, it also thrives in the cooler parts of the Russian River Valley, albeit in banana belts at higher elevations above the fog line and on sunny, south- and west-facing slopes.
The Dry Creek Valley, wedged between Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley, is perhaps Zinfandel’smost natural home. These wines define the variety’s briary, brambly personality.
A to Z in Zin Producers
It’s hard to list the top Sonoma Zinfandel producers. For every name you include, you’d have to leave three off who deserve to be there.
Certainly, no one would object to citing Bella, DeLoach, Gary Farrell, Joseph Swan, Ravenswood, Sausal, Sbragia, Seghesio, St. Francis and Williams Selyem. They’re made in different styles, but all show that voluptuous, peppery, full-bodied Zinny essence.
Does a good Zinfandel age? Yes, as proven by 20-year-old bottles from some of the more established wineries. The wine gradually sheds its upfront fruit, throwing tannins that show up as sediment in the bottom of the bottle. It also becomes lighter in color, mellower and seemingly sweeter and purer in fruits.
In fact, it can be difficult to tell a 20-year-old Zinfandel from an equally aged Pinot Noir or Petite Sirah. But a good Zinfandel also is ready to drink on release. And is there a better wine for summer barbecuing or winter’s short ribs?
When Zin Sins
When Zinfandel goes wrong—and it can, especially in heat waves—it’s usually because it’s overripe, which makes for raisined fruit and high alcohol. That gives the wine jalapeño-chile heat, as well as a cloying, glyceriny sweetness.
Posing a challenge for winemakers, Zinfandel ripens unevenly on the grape cluster. You can have a sour green berry right next to a ripe purple one and a raisin. This necessitates careful winnowing by the vintner, an expensive task because it demands more hands to pick out bad berries on the sorting table.
Fortunately, Sonoma’s coveted Zinfandels are treated like pampered children by their proprietors. A great Zinfandel will never be cheap, but compared to Cabernet or Pinot Noir, Zinfandel is the best value you’ll find in a Sonoma County red wine.