Don’t you just love a good mystery? And a mystery involving wine is even better, so put on your deerstalker, fire up your Meershaum and pour yourself a nice glass of that mystery grape:
While you admire the deep claret color and drink in those dark berry and chocolate aromas you might just ask yourself, “Where did this lovely deliciousness come from?” Now just to be clear, we’re not talking about White Zinfandel – made from the same grape, but pink and sweet, albeit with some actual wine-like qualities. More about white zin in a minute.
Second only to Cabernet Sauvignon, zinfandel is the most extensively planted grape varietal in California, but it alone is considered “California’s grape.” With the exception of very small plantings in South Africa and Australia, zinfandel grapes grow nowhere else in the world. How can that be? Zinfandel’s been growing in California since the 1850’s. How did it get there, and from where? Ah, the plot thickens.
Here’s what we know: Zinfandel are black-skinned grapes that grow in tightly packed heart-shaped clusters. They have a very high sugar content resulting in robust red wines that are often fermented to exceed 15% alcohol. No wonder Zin lovers are called Zinfidels! (I just made that up).
Oh yeah, and about that White Zinfandel. In 1972 Sutter Home winery was making a batch of Zinfandel when they experienced what’s know as a “stuck fermentation.” This is a problem where the yeast all dies off before the grape sugars are converted to alcohol. Bob Trinchero, one of the brother/owners of Sutter Home didn’t know what to do with his vats of sweet, pink wine. In a fit of marketing genius he decided to bottle it and call it “White Zinfandel.” Little did he know that that 220 case goof in 1972 would turn into 14 million cases of white zin in 2014. We should all be so goofy.
But, back to the mystery. The Italians have always claimed that Zinfandel is a descendant of a grape grown in Puglia (that’s the heel of the boot that we know to be Italy) called Primitivo. Indeed, that was always what wine folks believed until Grapeful Dregs: CSI came on the scene with some sophisticated DNA grape testing. Seriously, it turns out from DNA fingerprinting that two Croatian grapes are genetically equivalent to Zinfandel. Those two grapes are the Crljenak Kaštelanski and the Tribidrag. (Sounds like refugees from the Krakow Circus).
Why is Zinfandel’s ancestry important? Well, in the overarching scheme of things it must rank somewhere between fantasy sports and whether the Professor was more in love with Ginger or MaryAnn, but questions like Zinfandel’s origins give wine geeks something to ponder when they’re alone – which is often.
But solving the mystery of Zinfandel also means tasting a lot of good wine.
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Why not do your own research? Come in and try these wonderful Zinfandels (all 2012 vintages):
Joel Gott Zinfandel: Lots of dark fruit, cherries, spice and vanilla
7 Deadly Zins: A hedonistic array of black fruits, raisins and cocoa from old vines in Lodi, California
Turley Old Vine Zin: This highly prized wine has bold black cherries, briar, wild berry, smoky cracked pepper and a hint of anise.
$34.99 (and worth every penny)
Sasseo Primitivo: Roasted strawberries, dark fruit, blueberries, smoke and licorice with a long, mouth-coating finish. Not bad for an impostor.