Happy "National Zinfandel Day"! Celebrated the third Wednesday of November every year, it is the perfect time to indulge in one during the holiday season.
Although Zinfandel—known as Primitivo in Italy—hails from Europe, its most famous incarnations come from the United States. In California, this black grape produces spicy, unctuous, sometimes cringing, dry red wines, which is a positive. A version of Zinfandel, known as white Zinfandel, which is sweet and extremely popular in the United States. White Zinfandel is actually a rosé made from red Zinfandel grapes. It was created accidentally at Sutter Home during the 1970s, when a batch of must, bled from a red-wine fermentation, failed to ferment dry. In other words, it’s sweet rosé made by the saignee method.
It transcended its humble beginning to become a U.S. phenomenon. Most examples have a few grams of residual sugar, like the five grams in Barefoot's bottling. The wines taste juicy, fruity and overtly sweet, with notes of strawberry, watermelon, raspberry and spice. For some, it’s a beloved wine that’s cheap, sweet and easy-drinking. For others, it’s the reason behind consumer hesitation to embrace rosé, as many associated pink wine with a candied drink. Zinfandel’s deep-hued and flavorful berries make it well-suited to rosé winemaking.
In the vineyard, Zinfandel is a black grape with thin skin. Grapes grow in large, compact cones with berries of varying ripeness levels. Because grapes ripen at different times, the resulting wines can have a mix of dried and fresh fruit flavors, however some winemakers hand select the berries to hone the flavor profile. The grape thrives in warm, dry climates and can produce wines that are close to 20% alcohol-by-volume (abv). Wines are often made from old vines that have matured in the vineyard for as long as a century.
Zinfandel can be vinified into red and rosé wines. Red wines are red-purple in color, and display a signature spice profile, as well as jammy red fruits, like blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.
Production of Zinfandel began to surge in California during the 1840s. It is now grown across the state, with notable examples coming from Napa, Sonoma, the Sierra Foothills, Amador County and Paso Robles. Styles vary among these regions, with some of the hotter climates yielding powerful wines with muscle and depth. Try the "old vine" Zinfandels in Lodi region in Cali.
Known as Primitivo in Italy, the grape is most well known in the southern region of Puglia. The generally warm climate of the area produces richly fruited wines that show lots of jammy cherry and blackberry tones, alongside lifted accents of spice, violet and orange rind. The most well-known expression from Puglia is Primitivo di Manduria, which is from a region that sits alongside the Ionian Sea. There are the richest, broadest examples from an area. In more central Puglia, Primitivo from the Gioia del Colle appellation can be lighter and more elegant in style. Well-priced, accessible options abound in the Salento Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT).
Grapes are picked early and fermented dry in stainless steel to retain freshness and bright fruit character. This style is similar to Primitivo-based rosatos from Southern Italy. Because Zin/Primitivo grapes have deep color, it only takes a few minutes for skins to turn a wine the color of azaleas. Wines taste of red berries and watermelon, but with more citrus and herb notes like mint. The best versions are crisp and invigorating.
The grape originated in Croatia, where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. From there, it spread to southern Italy. Italian immigrants brought the vine to the United States, where it eventually became widely planted in California.