“Zin” is most often associated with California, and until the 1990’s, it was widely thought to be indigenous of the state. After all, the grape had been around since the gold rush in the 1850’s, it survived the Prohibition of the 1920’s, barely made it through the depression of the 1930’s, revived as “White Zinfandel” in the 1970-80’s, and is now prized for its wines made of “Old Vines”...
Some historians did suggest it was of Austro-Hungarian origins (because of its name and old records) and some Californian winemakers thought it looked like a grape they’d seen before on the coasts of the Adriatic sea… but nothing was for sure.
It took DNA testing, under the leadership of Dr. Carole Meredith from UC Davis and other researchers to trace its origins to Croatia via Puglia. Back there; however, the grape does not go by the name of “Zin”: It’s called Primitivo in Puglia and Crljenak Kaštelanski or Tribidrag in Croatia.
In the vineyard, like most grape it can be abused to produce wines that lack concentration. Zinfandel likes warmth and a long growing season. Besides, it is prone to “millerandage”, a condition that results in uneven ripening of berries. This means that when harvest time comes, a grape cluster can show green berries, perfectly mature berries, and over-ripe shriveled berries. This can pose the question of picking time and reduce yields if some berries are removed at the sorting table. Either way, it will surely influence the finished wine with flavors ranging from strawberry-rhubarb to fig and raisin with everything in between. When harvested on the late side, it has potential level for a crazy 17 percent of alcohol by volume.
In the winery, it’s used to make all sorts: from the “white Zinfandel” which is a sweetish rosé de saignée to medium and full-bodied, well-extracted red blended with Negroamaro (IT), Petite Syrah, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre or even the old Mission (CA) for deeper color, higher acidity and more complexity. Obviously, new American oak is often used in California, less so in the rest of the world.
In the glass you may have everything from green (mint & eucalyptus) and floral (rose & violet) to red (cranberry, strawberry) and prune, figs, raisins with spices (cinnamon, clove and pepper) and dried herbs.
To taste Zinfandel, try an inexpensive white zinfandel from the inventor of the “blush” style (Sutter Home), a more serious Californian Ridge Zinfandel by the “King of Zin” Paul Draper. From Vigneti del Salento, a Primitivo di Manduria DOP Leggenda Vigne Vicchie or from Australia, a Cape Mentelle Zinfandel.
To learn more about grapes, where they grow and how they taste, enroll the WSET Level 2 Award in Wines with Wine & Spirit IQ.
Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure
Dalton, L. (2015) IDTT Wine 309: Carole Meredith. Available at https://www.stitcher.com/show/ill-drink-to-that-with-levi-dalton/episode/idtt-wine-309-carole-meredith-41209891 (Accessed: 12 November 2020).
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine.New York: Oxford University Press Inc