Zinfandel is a variety of red grape planted in over 10 percent of California wine 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 (Puglia).
It is typically made into a robust red wine, but in the USA a semi-sweet rosé (blush-style) wine called White Zinfandel has six times the sales of the red wine. Zinfandel has such high sugar levels that it was originally grown for table grapes in the USA, and this sugar can be fermented into high levels of alcohol, sometimes 15% or more.
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 such as the Napa Valley, whereas blackberry, anise and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas such as Sonoma County, and in wines made from the earlier-ripening Primitivo clone.
Species: Vitis vinifera
Also called: Crljenak Kaštelanski, Zin, ZPC (more)
Notable regions: California, Puglia, Dalmatia
Hazards: Bunch rot, uneven ripening
Archaeological evidence points to the domestication of Vitis vinifera somewhere in the Caucasus around 6000 BCE, and to the discovery of winemaking shortly after. From there it spread to the Mediterranean, and then along the coast to Greece, the Balkans and Italy. It is now known that Croatia has many indigenous varieties that are quite closely related to Crljenak Kaštelanski, which formed the basis of a considerable wine industry in the 1800s. This diversity suggests that these grapes have been in Croatia for a long time. However, these varieties were almost entirely wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, and Crljenak Kaštelanski was reduced to just a few vines on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
Italians claim Primitivo as the descendant of the grape that made “merum”, a wine brought to Puglia by Illyrian colonists before the Greeks arrived in the 7th century BC. Horace and other Roman writers mention “mera tarantina” from Taranto, and Pliny the Elder describes Manduria as viticulosa (full of vineyards). But after the fall of the Roman Empire winemaking declined until it was only kept alive in the monasteries — Benedictine in Murgia and Greek Orthodox in Salento. New grape varieties could have been brought across the Adriatic at any time during the Middle Ages; the first official mention of Primitivo is not until Italian governmental publications of the 1870s. The fact that such records come 40 years after Zinfandel is first documented in the USA led some to suggest that Primitivo was introduced from across the Atlantic; this became unlikely after the discovery of its origin across the Adriatic in Dalmatia.
The most common story dates the origin of Primitivo as a distinct clone to the late 1700s. Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati, the priest of the church at Gioia del Colle near Bari, selected an early (”primo”) ripening plant of the Zagarese (”from Zagreb”) 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 as part of the dowry of the Countess Sabini of Altamura when she married Don Tommaso Schiavoni-Tafuri of Manduria in the late 1800s.
USA’s East Coast
Parts of Croatia had been ruled by the Habsburg Monarchy since 1527, although Dalmatia was not absorbed until the fall of the Venetian Empire in 1797. This suggests how Crljenak Kaštelanski found its way to the Imperial Nursery in Vienna. George Gibbs, a horticulturist on Long Island received shipments of grapes from Schönbrunn and elsewhere in Europe between 1820 and 1829. Sullivan suggests that the “Black Zinfardel of Hungary” mentioned by William Robert Prince in A Treatise on the Vine (1830) may have referred to one of Gibbs 1829 acquisitions. Webster suggests that the name is a corruption of tzinifándli (czirifandli), a Hungarian word derived from the German Zierfandler. Since Zierfandler (Spätrot) is a white grape from Austria’s Thermenregion, someone must have mixed up labels along the way.
Gibbs visited Boston in 1830 and soon afterwards, Samuel Perkins of that city started selling “Zenfendal”. The same year, he supplied Prince with a similar variety called “Black St. Peters” which appears to have come from England. Little is known about this second grape, but the name suggests an origin in a religious house, so it may represent a clone of Primitivo that had come to England via Gibraltar.
Bottles of Californian Zinfandel and Primitivo di Manduria.By 1835 Charles M. Hovey, Boston’s leading nurseryman, was recommending “Zinfindal” as a table grape, and soon it was widely grown in heated greenhouses for the production of table grapes as early as June. By that time New Englanders had given up trying to make wine from vinifera vines; the first reference to making wine from “Zinfindal” comes in John Fisk Allen’s Practical Treatise in the Culture and Treatment of the Grape Vine (1847). Meanwhile the fad of hothouse cultivation faded in the 1850s as attention turned to the Concord variety and others that could be grown outdoors in Boston.
Prince and other nurserymen such as Frederick W. Macondray joined the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, and took Zinfandel with them. Prince’s notebook records that it dried “perfectly to Raisin” and also his belief that his Zinfandel was the same as the “Black Sonora” he found in California. Black St. Peters also came to California; it was regarded as a distinct variety but by the 1870s was recognized as the same grape as Zinfandel.
Joseph W. Osborne may have made the first wine from Zinfandel in California. He planted Zinfandel from Macondray at his Oak Knoll vineyard just north of Napa, and his wine was much praised in 1857. After that, planting of Zinfandel boomed, and by the end of the 19th century it was the most widespread variety in California.
These Zinfandel old vines are now treasured for the production of premium red wine, but many were ripped up in the 1920s, during Prohibition, but not for the obvious reason. Section 29 of the National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) allowed 200 gallons (757 l) of “non-intoxicating…fruit juice” to be made each year at home. Initially “intoxicating” was defined as anything over 0.5%, but the Internal Revenue Bureau soon struck that down and this effectively legalised home winemaking. Some vineyards embraced the sale of grapes for making wine at home; Zinfandel grapes were popular among home winemakers living near the vineyards, but its tight bunches left its thin skins vulnerable to rot on the long journey to East Coast markets. The thick skins of Alicante Bouschet were less susceptible to rot, so this and similar varieties were widely planted for the home winemaking market. 3000 cars (about 38000 t) of Zinfandel grapes were shipped in 1931, compared to 6000 cars of Alicante Bouschet.
By 1930 the vineyards were suffering from the Great Depression as well as Prohibition. Many of the vineyards that survived by supplying the home market were in the Central Valley, not the best place for quality Zinfandel. So the end of Prohibition left a shortage of quality wine grapes, and Zinfandel sank into obscurity as most was blended into undistinguished fortified wines. However there were still producers interested in making single varietal red wines. In 1972, Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home winery decided to try “bleeding” juice from the vats in order to impart more tannins and color to his Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel. He vinified this juice as a dry wine, and tried to sell it under the name of Oeil de Perdrix, a French wine made by this “saignée” method.
However in 1975 Trinchero’s wine experienced a stuck fermentation, a problem in which the yeast dies off before all the sugar is turned to alcohol. He put it aside for two weeks, then tasted it and decided to sell this pinker, sugary wine regardless. In the same way that Mateus Rosé had become a huge success in Europe after World War II, this medium sweet White Zinfandel became immensely popular. Its popularity is now in decline, but it still accounts for 9.9% of US wine sales by volume (only 6.3% by value). Most such wine is made from Zinfandel grown for the purpose in California’s Central Valley, as White Zinfandel outsells the reds by 6:1 in the US market.
Most serious wine critics in the 1970s-1980s considered White Zinfandel to be insipid and uninteresting, although modern wines have more fruit and less cloying sweetness. Nevertheless, the success of this “blush” wine saved many old vines in premium areas, which came into their own at the end of the 20th century as red Zinfandel wines came back into fashion. The two wines are so different that some consumers think that “white zinfandel” is a distinct grape variety, and not a different way of processing the same (red) grapes.
The red wines have also been criticized for being too “hot” (too alcoholic), although modern winemaking has helped make them more approachable. On the other hand, Zinfandel producers such as Joel Peterson of Ravenswood believe that technologies such as reverse osmosis and spinning cones to remove alcohol, also remove a sense of terroir from the wine; if the wine has the tannins and other components to balance 15% alcohol, Peterson argues that it should be accepted on its own terms.
Relationship to Primitivo and Crljenak Kaštelanski
A vine of Crljenak Kaštelanski, in the vineyard where it was discovered. The metal tag from the University of Zagreb indicates that this vine is reserved for genetic research.Zinfandel was long considered “America’s vine and wine”. But when Austin Goheen, a professor at UC Davis visited Italy in 1967, he noticed how wine made from Primitivo reminded him of Zinfandel. Others also made the connection about that time. Primitivo was brought to California in 1968, ampelographers declared it identical to Zinfandel in 1972, and the first wine was made from the vines in 1975 which also suggested that they were identical. The same year PhD student Wade Wolfe showed that the two varieties had identical isozyme fingerprints.
In 1993, UCD colleague Carole Meredith used a DNA fingerprinting technique that gave the same result, indicating that Primitivo and Zinfandel should be regarded as different clones of the same variety. Comparative field trials have found that “Primitivo selections were generally superior to those of Zinfandel, having earlier fruit maturity, similar or higher yield, and similar or lower bunch rot susceptibility.”This fits the suggestion that Primitivo was selected as an early-ripening clone of a Croatian grape.
The search was now on for the original Primitivo/Zinfandel. Dr. Lamberti of Bari had suggested to Goheen in 1976 that Primitivo might be the Croatian variety Plavac Mali. By 1982 Goheen had confirmed that they were similar but not identical, probably by isozyme analysis. However some Croatians became convinced that Plavac Mali was Zinfandel, among them Croatian-born winemaker Mike Grgich. In 1991 Grgich and other producers came together as the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) with the objectives of promoting the varietal and wine, and supporting scientific research on Zinfandel. With this support, Meredith went to Croatia and collected over 150 samples of Plavac Mali throughout Dalmatia, in collaboration with Ivan Pejić, Edi Maletić, Jasminka Karoglan Kontić and Nikola Mirošević of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Zagreb.
By 1998, Meredith’s team realized that Plavac Mali was not Zinfandel but related, with one being the parent of the other. In 2000 they discovered that Primitivo/Zinfandel was one parent of Plavac Mali. The other parent of Plavac Mali was found by Maletić and Pejić to be Dobričić, an ancient variety from the Adriatic island of Šolta.
This discovery narrowed down the search to the central Dalmatian coastal strip and its offshore islands. Eventually a matching DNA fingerprint was found among the samples. The match came from a vine sampled in 2001 in the vineyard of Ivica Radunić in Kaštel Novi. This Crljenak Kaštelanski (”Kaštela Red”) appears to represent Primitivo/Zinfandel in its original home, although some genetic divergence may have occurred since their separation. Meredith now refers to the variety as “ZPC” - Zinfandel / Primitivo / Crljenak Kaštelanski.
This one Croatian vineyard contained just 9 Crljenak Kaštelanski vines mixed with thousands of other vines. In 2002, additional vines known locally as Pribidrag were found in the Dalmatian coastal town of Omiš. Both clones are being propagated in California under the aegis of Ridge Vineyards, although virus infections have delayed their release. Grgich has set up a winery in Croatia, Grgić Vina, to grow Plavac Mali and other indigenous varieties. The first Croatian ZPC wine was made by Edi Maletić in 2005 Meanwhile plantings of Primitivo have been increasing in California, where it seems to grow a little less vigorously than its sibling. In turn its wines have more of the blackberry and spice flavors.
Local regulations are slowly catching up with the DNA evidence, but have become bogged down in trade disputes. The European Union recognised Zinfandel as a synonym for Primitivo in January 1999, which means that Italian Primitivos can be labelled as Zinfandel in the USA and any other country that recognises EU labelling laws. The Italians have taken advantage of these rules and shipped Primitivo wines to the US labelled as Zinfandels, with the approval of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
However as of December 2007, the TTB lists both Zinfandel and Primitivo in 27 CFR § 4.91 as approved grape varieties for American wines, but they are not listed as synonyms. This means that US producers can produce Primitivo wine, but not label it as Zinfandel, and vice versa. The ATF proposed that they be recognised as synonyms in Notice of Proposed Rulemaking No. 941, published in the Federal Register on 10 April 2002 but a decision on RIN 1513–AA32 (formerly RIN 1512-AC65) appears to be postponed indefinitely.
Distribution and wines
There are small plantings in South Africa, Western Australia and the Mclaren Southern Vales area of South Australia. The Croatian form Crljenak Kaštelanski was not bottled as a varietal in its own right in Croatia before the link to Zinfandel was revealed. Now UCD has sent clones of both Zinfandel and Primitivo to Prof Maletić in Croatia, which he has planted on the island of Hvar. He made his first ZPC wines in Croatia in 2005; there is high demand for red grapes in the country and the government are supportive.
Most Primitivo is grown in Puglia (Apulia), the ‘heel’ of Italy. The main 3 DOC areas are Primitivo di Manduria, Gioia del Colle Primitivo (Riserva) and Falerno del Massico Primitivo (Riserva o Vecchio). The Manduria DOC covers still red wine as well as sweet (Dolce Naturale) and fortified (Liquoroso Dolce Naturale, Liquoroso Secco) wine. Falerno requires a minimum of 85% Primitivo, the others are 100% Primitivo. You can also get Gioia del Colle Rosso and Rosato, which promise 50-60% Primitivo, and Cilento Rosso/Rosato which contains around 15%.
Historically, the grape was fermented and shipped north to Tuscany and Piedmont where it was used as a blending grape to “beef up” thin red wines produced in those areas. When the link between Primitivo and Zinfandel began to emerge, plantings in the region and production of non-blended varietal increased. Today most Italian Primitivo is made as a rustic, highly alcoholic red wine with up to 16% ABV. Some Italian winemakers will age the wines in new American oak in order to better imitate the American style of Zinfandel.
US producers make wine in styles that range from late harvest dessert wines, rosé (White Zinfandel) and Beaujolais-style light reds to big hearty reds and fortified wine in the style of port. Its quality and character largely depend on the climate, place of cultivation, the age of the vineyard, and the winemaking technology. Historically, California Zinfandels vines were planted in fields 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.
While it is most widely known in the California wine industry, Zinfandel is also grown in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. In 2005 there were 51,425 acres (20,811 ha) of Zinfandel in California, representing 10.9% of the wine vineyards. Around 400,000 short tons (350,000 tonnes) are crushed each year, depending on how good the harvest is. This puts it in 3rd place behind Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and just ahead of Merlot.
The following California wine-growing counties are known for producing Zinfandel:
- Amador produces big, full-bodied Zinfandel; Amador grapes are often used in Napa Zinfandels.
- Contra Costa - Produces dusty and earthy wines.
- El Dorado
- Lake County
- Lodi has some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in California. Often used for White Zinfandel production but in the red style can produce juicy, approachable wines.
- Napa - Known for the plummy and intense Zinfandels tasting of red berry fruits with cedar and vanilla.
- Russian River Valley - Generally produces well during very warm vintages, otherwise the grapes tend not fully ripen and the wines are left with excessive levels of acidity.
- San Joaquin
- San Luis Obispo - Particularly the Paso Robles AVA which is known for its soft, round wines with less acidity than in the Sonoma regions.
- Santa Clara - Particularly the Santa Cruz Mountains which are known for the complexity and depth of the Zinfandels.
- Sonoma - Particularly Dry Creek Valley AVA which produces juicy Zinfandel bright fruit, balanced acidity and notes of blackberry, anise and pepper.
Viticulture and winemaking
The vines are quite vigorous and like a climate that is warm but not too hot, otherwise the grapes may shrivel in the heat. They produce large, tight bunches of thin-skinned fruit, which means that bunch rot can be a problem. The fruit ripen fairly early, and produce juice with high levels of sugar; if the conditions are right they may be late-harvested for dessert wine. Zinfandel is often praised for its ability to not only reflect its terroir but to also reflect the skill and style of its winemaker.
The grapes are known for their uneven pattern of ripening with a single bunch having the potential to include overripe raisin like, perfectly ripen and green, unripe grapes in the same clusters. Some winemakers choose to vinify the bunches with these varying levels of ripeness adding their own unique component to the wine while others will 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.
Decisions on when to harvest, how cool to ferment the wine, how long of a maceration period with skin contact and the level of oak aging can have a pronounced effect on the wine. The degrees Brix that the grapes are harvested at can have a dramatic effect on the resulting flavors in the wine. 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. With 24°Bx, the cherry flavors appear followed by the blackberry notes at 25°Bx.
Crljenak Kaštelanski, Gioia Del Colle, Locale, Morellone, Plavac Veliki, Primaticcio, Primativo, Primitivo, Primitivo Di Gioia, Primitivo Nero, Uva Della Pergola, Uva Di Corato, Zin (informal), ZPC, Black St. Peters, Zenfendal, Zinfardel, Zinfindal, Taranto, Zeinfandall, Zinfardell, Zinfindel, Zinfandal.