Complete Guide to Zinfandel Wine | Wine 101
From dry, bold, and jammy to light, blush, and sweet, Zinfandel is perhaps the only grape that plays both sides of the field - pulling it off beautifully.
Despite being a native Croatian, this grape has been dubbed “America’s Grape,” with exceptional Californian wines showcasing the boldness and complexity of this finicky, tightly-clustered grape.
In this guide, we take a deep dive into the grape that wears many hats, along with food pairing ideas, notable regions, plus some perfect recommendations!
Characteristics of Zinfandel
It is important to note that the differences between Zinfandel wines are not so much dependent on where it is grown (though that is a factor), but rather how it is made.
For example, traditional Zinfandel is made as a dry red wine primarily in California and Southern Italy, where it is known as Primitivo.
Dry red Zinfandel is usually high in alcohol, around 14-17%, with high acid, moderate tannins, and medium to full in body.
Alongside dry red Zinfandel, we also have White Zinfandel - actually blush in color - and fortified late-harvest Zinfandel.
White Zinfandel is usually sweetened and tends to be light in body and low in alcohol, around 12-13%.
As you can probably imagine, Fortified Zinfandel is high in alcohol and deliciously full in body with excellent aging potential.
Zinfandel is typically made as a single varietal, though some Californian wines will blend it with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Petit Sirah.
In Italy, it may be blended with other local varietals, such as Negroamaro, or Malvasia Nera di Brindisi, though fortified Zinfandel can legally only be made with the Zinfandel grape.
Zinfandel Tasting Notes
When it comes to dry red Zinfandel, Italy and California make for wines rich with dark fruit flavor, black pepper, licorice, and oak spice. The balance of high acid and moderate tannins makes for a wine that ages gracefully.
Zinfandel grown at lower elevations can be expected to have more bright and fresh fruit flavors, whereas higher elevation Zinfandel will have more dried and cooked fruit flavors.
When it comes to White Zinfandel, almost all will be sweet with refreshing flavors of strawberry, melon, and raspberry.
On the other hand, Fortified Zinfandel is rich with Port-like flavors of fig, raisin, black cherry, and cassis.
How is Zinfandel Served?
Red Zinfandel is best served in a traditional red wine glass at room temperature (60°-68°F). Older vintages of Zinfandel do best with decanting for at least 30 minutes- 1 hour.
White Zinfandel is best served in a standard white wine glass at a chilled temperature (49°-55°F).
Finally, fortified Zinfandel should be served in a smaller dessert wine glass, similar to what you would use for a glass of Port.
This is to help prevent overwhelming the palate and to serve as a dessert wine. Fortified Zinfandel should be served at room temperature, just like a dry red wine.
The Zinfandel Grape
The origins of Zinfandel begin in Croatia, where it is known as both Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag.
Tribidrag was introduced to California in the 1830s, where it quickly proved to grow quite well, and eventually became California’s most widely planted red grape until Cabernet Sauvignon surpassed it in the late 90s.
Still, Zinfandel remains widely popular in California, most notably in Napa Valley, Lodi, and Paso Robles, though California, in general, remains Zinfandel’s most successful growing region to date.
In addition to California, Tribidrag was also introduced to Southern Italy in Apulia, where it - known as Primitivo - has become one of the most notable regional varietals.
Zinfandel is a thin-skinned grape that grows in tight clusters, making it prone to rot. Therefore, its best-growing conditions are in warm, mild climates.
Notable Regions for Zinfandel
Napa Valley, California
Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, as it was one of the first regions to be introduced to this grape following its introduction to the states.
Since then, it has continued to be maintained, though every year, it seems more and more winemakers opt out of Zinfandel in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon. This is likely due to the fickleness of Zinfandel, as the balance of sugar and acid is incredibly weather-dependent.
In addition to producing dry styles of Zin., Napa is also the birthplace of White Zinfandel, which was invented to combat the unappealing bitterness found in red versions.
Due to its refreshing sweetness and mass-market production, White Zinfandel outsells red to date by about 6:1.
Of all the infamous wine regions in California, Lodi is perhaps one of the sleeping giants most well-known for producing excellent Zinfandel. Lodi is based in the Central Valley of California and lies slightly north of the San Joaquin Valley and east of the San Francisco Bay.
Known for its moderate Mediterranean climate, it’s not surprising that Zinfandel does well here. Warm, dry summers and cool winters make for the ideal climate. Lodi also has sandy loam soil, which is both quick-draining and nutrient-lacking. This helps guarantee the vines stay free of rot and that they produce fewer clusters with more concentrated flavors.
Lodi is also known for its “old vine Zinfandel,” meaning Zinfandel with vines dating back from 40 to 100 years. These vines are visually unmistakable, as the twisted, gnarled vines grace more than one wine bottle as its iconic label.
Paso Robles, California
Located in the heart of California’s central coast, Paso Robles has a well-established reputation for making excellent Zinfandel.
In fact, Zinfandel was the first mainstream grape planted in Paso Robles and has continued to be the predominant player alongside Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah.
Zinfandel succeeds in Paso Robles partly due to its diversity. This AVA is California’s largest, and with it comes dozens of unique soil types and microclimates.
Paso Robles also offers varying levels of elevation, which makes for complex and richly flavored Zinfandel.
You likely know by now that California is the premiere wine-growing region for Zinfandel, and yet, its presence in Apulia is equally - if not more - predominant and notable.
Apulia, also known as Puglia, is the “heel” of Italy, located in the southern peninsula. This fertile strip of Mediterranean land currently produces the second most quantity of wine in Italy (the first being Veneto), and yet, it’s not surprising that Apulia doesn’t have a more prominent reputation.
For all the success Apulia has shown in making wine, it produces primarily cheap table wine. While still delicious, it is less commonly exported than other Italian wines. Part of its success stems from its fertile soil and strategic location, with a constant breeze offering a cooling reprieve from the warm summer days.
This region also produces fortified versions of Zinfandel, which are legally required to be single varietals made up of late-harvest clusters that have turned to raisins on the vines. These wines are only made in exceptional years.
Zinfandel Food Pairings
The high acidity and well-defined flavor found in red Zinfandel makes it the perfect accompaniment to various courses.
From light and fruity to smoky and spiced, Zinfandel hits all the marks.
3 Awesome Zinfandel Wines to Try
Jump right into thew wonderful world of Zinfandel wine with one of these amazing expressions ranging from a great budget but to something slightly more expensive!
Under $15 - OZV Old Vine Zinfandel 2020
Based in Lodi, this Zinfandel is blended with Petit Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, making for a luscious and complex wine with fantastic aging potential.
This wine is the perfect bang for the buck, with plush raspberry jam and a dusting of cocoa. The smooth and long-lasting finish will leave you excited until the final sip.
Under $30 - Opaque Zinfandel 2017
Coming from the infamous Paso Robles, this wine, in particular, benefits from extended oak aging. This makes for a delicately spiced and well-rounded wine that will pair with just about anything you serve alongside it.
The balance of dark, jammy fruit, black pepper, and chocolate make for a complicated and wildly intriguing wine.
Under $100 - Outpost Howell Mountain Zinfandel 2018
Straight from Napa Valley, this wine is 100% Zinfandel and grown at high elevations, making for a vibrant wine. Long, sunny days and dry summers make for a happy Zinfandel, and this one, in particular, is exploding with flavor.
Blackberry, raspberry pie, ripe tannins, and an extended finish are all you need to know. This wine is worth every penny.
Interesting Facts about Zinfandel
- Zinfandel is high in alcohol partly because it ripens so unevenly. It’s not unusual for a single cluster to have raisins and unripened grapes at once. Therefore, the winemaker usually has to wait until the grapes are all ripened, meaning overly ripe grapes are inevitable, which in turn makes for a wine with high alcohol.
- In addition to being Italy’s second largest winemaking region, Apulia is also the producer of nearly half of Italy’s olive oil supply, with some olive trees being over 1,000 years old.
- Zinfandel is one of the few wines in the world with its own fan club. Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, also known as ZAP, is a group dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of Zinfandel and is based in California.