Grasping the Grape: Zinfandel

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Say It Right: Zin-fan-del

Other Known Aliases: Primitivo (Pree-mee-tee-vo), Tribidrag (Tri-bidd-rag)

Zinfandel may not get the international attention and acclaim that the USA’s Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays do, but it is nevertheless an – if not the – iconic “American” wine. As American as apple pie, you might say. Except, of course, it technically isn’t.

Though it was long thought to be and promoted as an indigenous varietal to the United States, the grape is actually native to Croatia, where it was originally known as Tribidrag. It didn’t land state-side until sometime in the early 19th century, eventually making California its home in the 1850s. The trajectory feels a little like that of the kid who didn’t get much attention in its hometown, but then, given the opportunity to start fresh at a new school in a new town, took on a different identity and flourished. Zinfandel was so popular in California, in fact, that up until 1998, it was the most widely planted red grape in the state (currently it’s number two, with Cabernet Sauvignon in the lead).

Granted, a big chunk of the grape’s production is dedicated to making the maligned semi-sweet, actuallypink- not-white wine known as “white Zinfandel.” While this may be some of Zinfandel’s most recognisable work in California, it is by no means its best. Grown throughout the state, “Zin” is at the top of its game in Sonoma, Napa, the Sierra Foothills and Lodi in the north, as well as Paso Robles in the centre.

Typically, these medium to full-bodied wines are robust and high-octane (aka boozy), delivering a wallop of berry fruit flavours so ripe it borders on jammy and raisinated. Notes of baking spices, sage, pepper, smoked meat and tobacco are also common markers. It’s worth mentioning, too, that Zinfandel’s long history in California makes it possible to find some exceptional, ageworthy old-vine expressions of the grape.

Although producers in parts of Australia, South Africa, South America and Croatia (of course) have had some success with Zinfandel, the varietal’s only other real home of note is in Puglia, otherwise known as the heel to Italy’s boot. There, it goes by yet another name – Primitivo – and is used to produce similarly rich, dark fruit-driven single varietal reds, or to add body and concentrated fruit flavour to blends with the native, highly tannic Negroamaro.


Notable Regions

California in the USA, Italy (specifically Puglia), Croatia.

Drink It With

Barbecued meats glazed in a sweeter-style sauce; lamb or steak; chilli con carne; spicy Mexican food such as carnitas tacos and chicken mole; burgers; sausage and pepper sandwiches or pizza.


Key Words

You like medium to full-bodied reds with moderate tannins; big, juicy, ripe red-berry flavours are your friend; love the idea of something that smells smoky and a little meaty; want to pick a wine that’s smooth but packs a punch.


You Might Also Like

Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, American Merlot, Nero d’Avola and Malbec.

More from Grasping the Grape:

Sure, drinking wine is all fun and good times, but learning about it isn’t always as easy. With Grasping the Grape, Maryse Chevriere seeks to be like that friend from school you went to for help because they took the best notes in class (complete with visuals). Featuring profiles of more than 30 of the world’s most prominent grapes, this guide to wine gives you the quick download on all the essentials: What the variety tastes like, where it’s grown, what wines it’s known for, what to drink it with, how to describe it and which other grapes to explore if you’re a fan. Because when it comes down to it, learning the grapes is the best way to start your journey into wine. In Grasping the Grape, you’ll also find information on key beginner wine drinking topics like how to become a better shopper and FAQs about rosé, as well as a handy plan of action for food and wine pairing, and a drinking game to help you become a sharper taster. If you weren’t grasping for a glass of wine before, you will be after this.

Excerpted with permission from Grasping the Grape by Maryse Chevriere, published by Hardie Grant Books, August 2019, RRP $14.88 hardcover.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.