Zinfandel is a variety of red grape planted in over 10 percent of California vineyards. DNA fingerprinting revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, and also the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in the “heel” of Italy, where it was introduced in the 18th century. The grape found its way to the United States in the mid-19th century, and became known by variations of the name “Zinfandel”, a name of uncertain origin.

The grapes typically produce a robust red wine, although a semi-sweet rosé (blush-style) wine called White Zinfandel has six times the sales of the red wine in the United States. The grape’s high sugar content can be fermented into levels of alcohol exceeding 15 percent. The taste of the red wine depends on the ripeness of the grapes from which it is made. Red berry fruits like raspberry predominate in wines from cooler areas, whereas blackberry, anise and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas and in wines made from the earlier-ripening Primitivo clone.

Archaeological evidence indicates that domestication of Vitis vinifera occurred in the Caucasus region around 6000 BCE, and winemaking was discovered shortly after. Cultivation of the vine subsequently spread to the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. Croatia once had several indigenous varieties related to Zinfandel, which formed the basis of its wine industry in the 19th century. This diversity suggests that the grapes existed in Croatia longer than anywhere else. However, these varieties were almost entirely wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, reducing Zinfandel to just nine vines of locally-known “Crljenak Kaštelanski” discovered in 2001 on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.

The first documented use of the term Primitivo appears in Italian governmental publications of the 1870s. The name derives from the terms primativus or primaticcio, which refer to the grape’s tendency to ripen earlier than other varieties. This name’s appearance 40 years after the first documented use of the term Zinfandel was previously thought to suggest that Primitivo was introduced to Italy from across the Atlantic; however, this hypothesis became unlikely since the discovery of the vine’s Croatian origin. Primitivo is now thought to have been introduced as a distinct clone into the Apulia region of Italy in the 18th century. Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati, the priest of the church at Gioia del Colle near Bari, selected an early (“primo”) ripening plant of the Zagarese variety and planted it in Liponti. This clone ripened at the end of August and became widespread throughout northern Puglia. Cuttings came to the other great Primitivo DOC (denominazione di origine controllata or “controlled denomination of origin”) as part of the dowry of the Countess Sabini of Altamura when she married Don Tommaso Schiavoni-Tafuri of Manduria in the late 19th century.

Zinfandel is most widely known in the California wine industry, but 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 wine in styles that range from late harvest dessert wines, rosés (White Zinfandel) and Beaujolais-style light reds to big hearty reds and fortified wine in the style of port. The quality and character of American Zinfandel wines largely depend on the climate and location in which they are grown, the age of the vineyard in which they are grown, and the technology employed by the winemaker. Historically, California Zinfandel vines were planted as a field blend interspersed with Durif (Petite Sirah), Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Mission and Muscat. While most vineyards are now fully segregated, California winemakers continue to use other grapes (particularly Petite Sirah) in their Zinfandel wines. Zinfandel is grown on approximately 11% of California’s vineyard land area.

Zinfandel vines are quite vigorous and grow best in climates that are warm but not too hot, because grapes may shrivel in hot weather. Zinfandel’s thin-skinned grapes grow in large, tight bunches that are sometimes prone to bunch rot. The fruit ripen fairly early and produce juice with high sugar levels. If weather conditions permit, the grapes may be late-harvested to make dessert wine. Zinfandel is often praised for its ability to reflect both its terroir and its winemaker’s style and skill.

The grapes are known for their uneven pattern of ripening: a single bunch may contain both raisin-like, over-ripe grapes and green, unripened grapes. Some winemakers choose to vinify the bunches with these varying levels of ripeness, while others hand-harvest the bunches, even by single berries, through multiple passes through the vineyards over several weeks. This extensively laborious practice is one component in the high cost of some Zinfandels.

Red Zinfandel wines have been criticized for being too “hot” (too alcoholic), although modern winemaking techniques have helped make them more approachable. On the other hand, Zinfandel producers believe that alcohol-removing technologies, such as reverse osmosis and spinning cones, remove a sense of terroir from the wine. If a wine has the tannins and other components to balance 15% alcohol, it should be accepted on its own terms.

When grapes are harvested, the length of fermentation, the length of the maceration period with skin contact and the level of oak aging affect the wine’s taste. The degrees Brix at which the grapes are harvested dramatically affect the wine’s flavor as well. White Zinfandel is normally harvested early at 20°Bx when the grapes have yet to develop much varietal character, though some examples can develop hints of tobacco and apple skin. At 23°Bx (the degree that most red wine is considered “ripe”), strawberry flavors develop. Cherry flavors appear at 24°Bx followed by blackberry notes at 25°Bx.

Written on October 22nd, 2010 , Grapes

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