Samui Wining & Dining
Zingy Zinfandel

There’s debate about its origins, but Zinfandel’s here to stay.


27For me, the Zinfandel grape is one of the unsung heroes of the wine world, outside of the USA. I recently had an inspiring conversation with a Californian wine grower who clearly knows a great deal and is openly passionate about Red Zinfandel. I suspect it’s probably no coincidence that an American is rightly proud of what is, after all, the only grape California can claim to be its own. Few New World wine regions have the opportunity of creating a new great wine, free from the inevitable comparison to the European classics, which applies to most other varietals. In fact, the origin of Zinfandel, which is Croatia, remained a mystery until DNA testing solved the puzzle a decade ago (the test also surprised many by concluding that it is a distant cousin of the Primitivo variety).

The Zinfandel grape had not thrived in Europe and had been forgotten about for centuries. But, luckily for us, at some point in the 19th century, Zinfandel vines somehow found their way to the Americas. Whether by accident or not, whoever was responsible for taking this, now highly-prized, ‘heritage’ grape across the Atlantic Ocean will remain the unknown darling of the Californian wine makers. However, some of the highly speculative stories behind Zinfandel’s name, its confused identity, the trans-continental voyage to America, and finally its trek across the continent to its eventual home in California, are too far-fetched for me to believe. And perhaps it’s a tale more suited to a TV mini-series or Hollywood screenwriters.

In terms of Zinfandel’s wine style, the story is equally provocative. Opinions on how to classify this grape have also shifted continuously as consumer whims have tested Zinfandel’s ability to play the chameleon. Zinfandel has delivered not only zesty, berry-fruity reds, but also spicy tannic beasts. And, to use a contemporary term, some intriguingly different vin nouveau. There have also been soft, simple and sweet rosés, unusual sparkling wines, dessert and fortified wines, and nearly combustible highly alcoholic monster red versions. Zinfandel has always found ways to remain useful, and to maintain its plantings in California.

Today, Americans are just plain crazy about both red and white Zinfandel. Amazingly, making it the third most crushed grape varietal in the states, right behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. And when it comes to growing and bottling Zinfandel, California is king. As my infectiously enthusiastic winemaker friend put it, whilst persuading me that a visit to California would be an unforgettably enjoyable experience for any wine lover (preaching to the converted, in my case): “Whether you love a nice refreshing glass of slightly sweet white Zinfandel on a hot summer day, or you prefer the intensely fruity, spicy red versions, there’s something for everyone in California. And with good weather all- year-round, anytime is a good time for a wine tour of some of the best places in the world for growing this American favourite.”

When I explained it’s the red Zinfandel that I am passionate about, too, I was promptly informed that three of the top California regions for producing these gorgeous ruby red wines are Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, the famous Sonoma County and Paso Robles in the more southerly Central Coast Region. And that nestling in these beautiful wine-growing countryside areas, there are numerous family-run wineries, with small intimate tasting rooms that are a joy to visit. Evidently, not only will you be warmly welcomed in an unpretentious relaxed atmosphere, and probably get to pet the family dog, but, also, there’s a good chance you will meet the wine maker themself.

Although the Zinfandel grape has been around for a long time, white Zinfandel didn’t come into existence until the 1970s. Sutter Home Family Vineyard in Napa Valley is widely credited with creating, what became known in America as, ‘blush wine’. They made a rosé of Zinfandel, but stopped fermentation a bit early to ensure that it had a touch of residual sugar. Personally, I’m not as big a fan of white Zinfandel as I am of the brilliant red variety. But, as an undeniable indicator of the popularity of this blush wine, the sales volume figures speak for themselves. Today, inexpensive white Zinfandel far outsells its pricier red counterparts, and tends to be produced by large wineries, such as Beringer and Sutter Home. It’s a fashionable lightweight lunchtime wine, unexpectedly food-friendly, not too strong in alcohol content and a trendy social drink (particularly at the more feminine gatherings).

However, as I say (and call me old-fashioned), it’s the red Zinfandels that really float my boat. Zinfandel makes wonderfully-rich, full-bodied spicy reds that are packed with ripe berry fruit and supple tannins. And, typically for new world wines, they are made ready to drink within a year. The prominent flavours, often of blackberries, spices, and ground pepper can be so well balanced that the wine almost resembles a food. In some of the best ones I’ve had the pleasure of drinking there’s a depth of flavour and a deep dark richness that’s hard to describe and reminiscent of some of the finest Italian wines I’ve tasted (just as American people of Italian ancestry have Latin features and mannerisms, there surely must be some crossover of characteristics between the related Zinfandel and Primitivo grapes?).

Red Zinfandel matches well with white meats, such as pork and poultry, and it’s my number one choice with festive roast turkey. It’s also a marvellous match to most cheeses (including the difficult-to-please blue cheeses) and the harder saltier cheeses pair especially well. And, finally, may I be so bold as to highly recommend, for a delicious example of the relatively modern style of food and wine pairing, char-grilled wild salmon with garlic and olive oil mashed potato and a nutty (non-acidic) green leaf salad, to be accompanied by a gorgeously smooth, well rounded, complex, unadulterated, mysteriously opaque and instantly addictive red Zinfandel.


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