No grape is as all-American as Zinfandel.
The grapes arrived in 1820, and during the Gold Rush were planted all over California. Although the Zinfandel grape is as American as John Wayne, its history dates back to the Croatian grape Tribidrag, and it is the same clone as Primitivo from Italy.
Zinfandel can be made in a lighter style, which will emphasize the flavors of red fruits. There are also medium-bodied Zinfandel wines that display more concentration with jam and pepper character. And then there is the most intense – usually made from older vines that are crazy-dense and concentrated. These Zins are pruney, port-like and high in both alcohol and sweetness.
Zinfandel is the perfect wine to pair with American barbecue. These wines are great with ribs, pork, spicy sausage – really anything you can imagine from the grill. And like the perfect guest at a barbecue, Zins are full of personality without pretension.
One often confuses these red Zinfandels with White Zinfandel, but they could not be any more different. Though made with Zinfandel grapes, the White Zin sees no contact with the grape skins and lets the juice remain white, sweet and as bland as bland can aspire. Save the white version for grandma, and keep your focus on the reds.
Zinfandel is a unique varietal, as very little is planted compared to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Only 3 percent of the vineyards in Napa Valley are planted to Zin. But even with that, America has the vast majority of these vines. About 50,000 acres are producing in the U.S., and just a handful in Croatia and Italy. Many of the oldest vines are still producing fruit, with some coming from those planted 100 years ago.
One of my favorite producers, Robert Biale Vineyards, makes the Black Chicken Zinfandel. This name comes from the prohibition era. When someone would call the Biale farm to order food, they would mention to add a black chicken – this was code for a jug of Biale wine. His group of friends dodged the law and became known as “the chicken coop cognoscente.”