It makes sense that Zinfandel has gained a reputation as California’s “heritage grape.” For many years, Zinfandel’s exact origins remained a mystery, or, as Jancis Robinson calls it, “a romantic thriller.” The red grape seemed to have made the trek and set fresh roots in the Golden State in conjunction with the forty-niners seeking their fortune in gold. Here, when the search for treasure proved fruitless, settlers turned to farming — and the Zinfandel grape thrived more than the Gold Rush ever could. Fields of vines flourished throughout the Sierra Foothills, and wine — namely jug wine — became a household staple and a new California industry.

With no known parentage and no knowledge of how the red wine grape arrived in the States in the first place — Zinfandel became California’s “wine child.”

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It wasn’t until the 1990s, once genetic testing became fully developed, that the connection between the Zinfandel grape and what Italians call Primativo was made. Indeed, this made sense — there was a strong influx of Mediterranean settlers during the Gold Rush era. But, scientists had to ask, did the California settlers send clippings to Italy or did Italian farmers send their vines to the new world? Which came first?

Just a few years following this discovery, the wine world learned the answer: Neither. Croatian viticultural researchers, working alongside scientists at UC Davis, discovered a nearly extinct grape variety on the island of Kaštela in Croatia called Crljenak Kaštelanski (translation: “red grape of Kaštela”). After more extensive DNA tasting, they discovered this obscurity to be identical to Zinfandel.

Of course by this time Zinfandel had become so common in California, it had become, what Jancis Robinson refers to as a “sort of home-grown weed.”

The popularity of Zinfandel — certainly California-based Zinfandel — has had its up and downs. With the popularity of White Zinfandel — a fruity, often sweet pink wine — Zinfandel seemed to have gained a rep as a “lower tier” wine. Indeed, the grape “can” grow in pretty much any part of California, but just like other varietals, there are certain regions that are better suited than others.

The truth is, Zinfandel actually does grow a bit like a weed. Unless pruned regularly, it tends to “over-bud” as it were, resulting in highly concentrated grapes. (And can actually make for good late harvest or dessert-style wines.) These compacted, thin-skinned grapes are also quite prone to rot and raisining, so do require a lot of attention in the vineyard. Zinfandel thrives best in moderate, Mediterranean-like climates that enjoy cooling winds (to prevent mildew) and an even ratio of sun exposure (to prevent over-ripening) — not unlike that found along the Sierra Foothills where Zinfandel’s California history originated.

While the Sierra Foothills is where Zinfandel was “born,” celebrated it’s post-Prohibition renaissance, and, indeed, still thrives beautifully today, it’s not the only California region that the grape can call home. As California continues its grape-growing evolution, there are more areas being discovered that can take care of its heritage grape.

Some of my favorite California Zinfandels reviewed on this site (thus far):

Corner 103 2012 Zinfandel: Made from 100% Zinfandel grapes harvested from the Dry Creek AVA in Sonoma County, this small, family-run vineyard can trace its viticultural roots to founding Italian immigrants — amongst the first to plant grapes in the Sonoma region.

Ammunition Wine 2015 Badgerhound Zinfandel: When asked about the winemaking details, winemaker Andy Wahl says, “It’s a secret […] a secret passed on to me from an older winemaker and it resembled what the Italians did years ago.” According to Wahl, he’s had a number of old-school wine sale guys tell him the Badgerhound Zin is reminiscent of the Zinfandels from 20 to 30 years ago. “But it is a secret,” Wahl insists, “Maybe one day we will let the world know…”

Adobe Road 2014 Kemp Vineyard Zinfandel: Kemp Vineyard is located at 1,000 feet elevation in an “an amphitheater-style bowl” in Sonoma’s Dry Creek AVA. Warmed by its proximity to the sun during the day and cooled by the cool coastal wind and fog at night, the location allows the vigorous Zinfandel grape to enjoy a slow, even ripening process.

Crux Winery 2011 Zinfandel: 2011 was not an ideal year for the Russian River Valley. In fact, most of Northern California was victim to excessive rain and flooding. And while some precipitation is always appreciated (especially in our modern drought-like situation), too much rain can literally over-hydrate wine grapes, resulting in flat and flabby wines. And, for tightly clustered grapes like Zinfandel, the potential for rot and mildew vastly increases. And yet somehow, these boys made it work in their favor…

Grgich Hills 2012 Estate Zinfandel: Expect nothing less than voluptuous wines with years of aging potential from founding Napa Valley winery Grgich Hills. The initial smell out of the bottle is a bit sulfer-y with hints of burnt rubber. (Did someone skid stop over a skunk?) Don’t let that put you off at all and keep in mind that this is an age-able Zinfandel, so a little stank is not only expected, but appreciated.

Terra d’Oro 2014 Estate Zinfandel: Many wine lovers are at least vaguely familiar with Napa’s rise to power in the 1970s. It was at this same time — perhaps because grape growers wanted to see what else they could grow and where else they could grow it — that Amador also had its comeback. Terra d’Oro (then under the Montevino label) was the first post-Prohibition winery in Amador. And their claim to fame — Zinfandel.

More Info: For a full list of Zinfandels reviewed on this site, click here.

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4 Comments on Zinfandel: California’s ‘Native’ Grape

  1. Major points for catching Corner 103’s offering, as Lloyd has a small production of this varietal but it’s definitely worthy. I’m impressed (we are Corner 103 wine club members and local residents).

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