aka Primitivo Nero, Crljenak, Zenfendal, etc…


Until recently, Zinfandel (a name of uncertain origin) was a mystery grape as far as its origins were concerned.  Research conducted in Croatia and at the University of California at Davis (UCD) used DNA profiling to prove that the Zinfandel grape is a clone of the Croatian variety Crljenak (Tsare-lee-yay-nak).  Long-held theories posited that Zinfandel’s genetic twin, the Italian Primitivo, was the originating source.  However, research has found that this grape also originally mutated from Crljenak.  This diversity suggests that the grape existed in Croatia longer than anywhere else.

At one point in time, Croatia had several indigenous varieties related to the Zinfandel grape.  This provided a foundation from which to base its wine industry on in the 19th century.  Later in that same century, the grape was almost entirely wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic.  In 2001 nine vines of the locally-known “Crljenak Kaštelanski” were discovered on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

Zinfandel first arrived in the the United States in 1820.  A New York nurseryman named George Gibbs carried back various cuttings from the Austrian Imperial Nursery in Vienna.  Over the next two decades, the grape became a very popular table grape in the Northeast.  Samuel Perkins of Boston began selling the grape as “Zenfendal“.  While there are disputes as to who brought Zinfandel to California, the grape is now considered to be indigenous, having thrived in the state since the mid-1850s.

Places It Is Grown

The Croatian Zinfandel, Crljenak Kaštelanski, was not bottled in Croatia as a varietal until the link to its offspring was revealed.  Since that link was found, researchers at UCD have sent clones of both Zinfandel and Primitivo to researchers in Croatia.  Those clones have been planted on the island of Hvar.  The first varietal was made in 2005.

Most Primitivo in Italy is grown in Puglia; the “heel” of the boot.  It is estimated to be Italy’s 12th most widely planted grape variety.  Italy’s three main areas of controlled designation of origin are Primitivo di Manduria, Gioia del Colle Primitivo (Riserva) and Falerno del Massico Primitivo (Riserva o Vecchio).

Like most other varietals, Zinfandel is most widely known as a product of the California wine industry; planted in over 10% of California’s vineyards.  However, the grape is also grown in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.  U.S. producers make a variety of styles of wine that range from late harvest dessert wines, rosés (mis-named White Zinfandel) and Beaujolais-style light reds to big hearty reds and fortified wine in the style of port.

Properties Of Grape

Zinfandel achieved widespread popularity in America, starting about 1980, as a pink and slightly sweet wine.  This popularity out-paced all other forms causing many fans of the varietal to think that there was actually a grape called “White Zinfandel“; no such grape exists.

Like most, if not all grapes, the quality and character of American Zinfandel wines is largely dependent upon the climate and location in which it is grown.  However, it is adaptable to many different climates and soils.  Other factors such as the age of the vineyard, and the technology employed by the winemaker play a large role as well.

Zinfandel grapes have a hardy nature aiding its proliferation.  Best if grown in climates that are warm but not too hot, the fruit will typically ripe early and produce juice that is high in sugar levels.  While these grapes can be left on the vine, weather permitting, to be made into a dessert wine, Zinfandel does have a tendency to set a second crop.   Zinfandel is frequently praised for its ability to reflect its terroir (land, air, climate) as well as the style and skill of the winemaker.

Zinfandel grapes have a thin skin and grow in large, tight bunches that are sometimes prone to bunch rot.  They are also known for an uneven pattern of ripening: a single bunch may contain raisin-like, over-ripe grapes and green, unripened grapes.  Because of this trend some winemakers choose to vinify the entire bunch while others choose to hand-harvest the bunches by making multiple passes through the vineyard for several weeks.  This leads to the high cost of some bottles of Zinfandel.

Many Zinfandel vineyards are 75-100 years old or more.  (This can be attributed to its ability to resist vine diseases.)  Many feel that “the older the vine, the better the grape.”  In many ways this statement is absolutely true based on the practice of older vineyards to plant smaller crops and the fact that the grapes tend to ripen more evenly.  These qualities make managing the vines easier as well.

Zinfandel can be made into various types of wine.  It can be made light and fruity, or lively, complex, age worthy and high in alcohol content.  The grape can be fermented into a wine that exceeds 15% alcohol content.  The Zinfandel grape is also a popular  component of most California “jug” wines.

With the various types of wine come various flavors and aromas.  When grown in cooler areas the raspberry and other red berry fruits can predominate in the wine.  Notes of blackberry, anise and pepper are more common in wines made in warmer areas.

Zinfandel is probably best enjoyed in its youth; within three to five years of the vintage.  As the wine achieves more age in the bottle the vibrant fruit notes drop off leaving only the high alcohol levels.

Partnering With Food

Rule #1: Matching the alcohol level and body of the wine to the heaviness of the food should make for a proper pairing every time.

Keeping that rule in mind, Zinfandel can be paired with a variety of foods.  So, whether you are grilling steaks or chops, or wanting to skip dinner and go straight to dessert you will be able to find a Zinfandel to match.

Below are a list of foods and dishes that should pair well with different types of Zinfandel:

  • BBQ Beef Ribs
  • Beef Pot Roast
  • Leg of Lamb
  • Black Olives Pizza
  • Braised Beef with Carrots
  • Chicken Marengo
  • Osso Buco alla Milanese Style
  • Spicey Tomato Sauce with Pasta
  • Duck Confit
  • Lasagna
  • Eggplants with Pasta Parmesan
  • Chocolate Cake
  • Chocolate Charlotte
  • Chocalate Mousse

Restaurants With These Types of Dishes

To view restaurants that serve appetizers, entrees and other dishes that partner well with this grape type, click here….

About americanwinegrape

American Wine Grape Distributors Inc. AKA A. Silvestro Wine Grape, has been in business for over 5 decades. We are wine enthusiasts just like you and want to share in that enjoyment. This is why we are developing a new and exciting platform for growers, restaurants, sommeliers and home winemakers. Our goal is to bring the wine community together and is the driving force behind our new blog.

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