The tale of the Zinfandel grape is quite a story indeed. Those who know it primarily for its semi-sweet blush version, White Zinfandel, might be surprised to learn of its long, globe-trotting history. Determined detective work coupled with DNA analysis filled in a lot of blanks for this flavorful red.
The story begins in Croatia, where a grape called Tribidrag has existed since at least the 1400’s. As happens when grapes travel, the variety began to acquire other names. In parts of that same country it was called Crljenak Kaštelanski, which remains its primary name there. Eventually it made its way to Italy, where it found a happy home in the southern region of Puglia, picking up the name Primitivo. It has been grown there since at least the late 1700’s. How it found passage to the U.S. is not exactly clear. But we do know that a Long Island grape grower was working with the varietal by the 1820’s, when it began to be called Zinfardel. The modern spelling of Zinfandel first appeared in 1852 and became standard about a decade later.
Small amounts of Zinfandel grapes are grown in countries as disparate as Mexico, Israel, South Africa, Canada and Australia. Even Washington and Oregon produce a bit. In Croatia, however, production leapt dramatically once the news hit (in 2001) of the connection with Zinfandel grapes and Primitivo. From an original discovery of 22 vines, there are now over 200,000. In Puglia about 10,000 acres exist. Then there is California, which had long adopted the grape as its own until the truth was discovered. Here it is the second most-planted red, after Cabernet Sauvignon, with over 50,000 acres, and it has been around since the 1850’s at least.
Wherever it’s made, Zinfandel makes an impact. The wines tend to be obviously fruit-forward, with California versions often showing blueberry, raspberry, boysenberry and peach yogurt flavors. Pepper, spice and a brambly character commonly make an appearance as well. As a point of difference from most varietals, old to very old Zinfandel grape vines are prized, even though they produce smaller amounts of fruit. The wines made from such gnarly old stumps are avidly sought after. Whatever you call it, Zinfandel is a wine worth exploring.