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Underrated Zinfandel

June 29, 2022

I love Zinfandel. I have an emotional attachment to Zinfandel. Zinfandel was the first red wine that seduced me as a young wine enthusiast. I was so passionate about Zinfandel that the owners of the wine shop where I worked my first wine job had a wine glass made for me that said, “Mr. Zin.” My girlfriend was unhappy not being “Mrs.,” but, well, we were living in zin. OK, no more zin puns.

Zinfandel is the most underrated red grape variety in California. It still suffers from being looked down upon as the source of white Zinfandel. And I’d contend, Zinfandel is underappreciated because it isn’t associated with a famous European wine region. When we think Cabernet Sauvignon, we think Bordeaux; when we talk of Pinot Noir, we remember Burgundy; when Syrah is spoken of, we inevitably invoke the Northern Rhône regions. When you think Zinfandel, you think California. It doesn’t seem as impressive.

Zinfandel originated in Croatia. The search for Zinfandel’s home consumed decades, first supposing its origin was the Italian grape Primitivo (both are simply clones of the same variety), then the Croatian grape Plavac Mali (which turned out to be an offspring of Zinfandel/Primitivo), but finally led to the garden of an elderly woman in Split, Croatia (no, they don’t grow bananas there), where a single 90-year-old vine provided the conclusive evidence that Zinfandel was a Croatian variety that had been known as Tribidrag since the 15th Century.

Zinfandel is a challenging variety to make. It ripens very unevenly. Each bunch might contain perfectly ripe grapes, along with overripe raisinated grapes, and tiny green unripened berries. But when it’s well-made, Zinfandel has an appeal that few other reds can match. Zinfandel isn’t shy. It jumps out of the glass and lights up your olfactory bulb with red fruits and black. The best examples are robust and vibrant, never brooding or inaccessible.

And Zinfandel is superb at the table. It works beautifully with just a good ol’ pizza. In fact, I almost always have Zin with a great pizza. But I also love Zinfandel with lamb. Zin loves flavorful, assertive foods. I rarely have Zin with a cheese course, but I’d think it would go wonderfully with Mimolette, a smoked Gouda, or Gruyère. In other words, friends, you should be drinking a lot more Zinfandel than you probably are. The zin of omission. (OK, I lied.)

Ron Washam, Sommelier/Wine Educator

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Rodney Strong

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