Jennifer Laskey verPlanck
by The Black Sheep Wine and Beer Store
There’s a mystery in the vineyards of California. Zinfandel has been an American favorite since the mid 1800’s and is now only second to Cabernet in vineyard plantings for red wine in California. But where did it come from and what exactly is Zinfandel? The original story was that the grapes were brought from Hungary by a Count Haraszthy in the 1850s. Not so. Evidence shows that Zinfandel cuttings were imported to the northeastern United States from the Imperial nursery in Vienna by an American, George Gibbs, in 1829. But where did the grape originate? Most other varietal grapes have a clear provenance but Zinfandel is a puzzle.
As our northern climate was unsuited to wine making, it was grown as a table grape known as Black St. Peters. The names Zenfendel and Zinfindal were also used, though why is also not known. The wine is now mostly referred to simply as Zin.
After the California Gold Rush, many former miners stayed on to work the area’s rich farmlands, and a few planted vineyards. The Zinfandel grape arrived in California in 1852, and by 1859 there were mature Zinfandel vineyards in both Napa and Sonoma. During prohibition, many of the vines were destroyed and replaced with apricots and other fruit trees, but Zin was often marketed as “sacramental wine”, which was exempt under The Volstead Act, so some vines and wineries were saved.
California’s warm Central Valley is well known for its robust, peppery, dark berry, almost jammy Zins, with alcohol by volume as high as 17 percent. This area produces a port style Zin as well as a rosé wine called white Zin. More northern and temperate vineyards, Amador County, Lake County and Sonoma’s Dry Creek region produce full bodied, drier and more elegant wines, with distinctive earthy, brambly scents and red berry flavors.
The distinction between the American Zinfandel and the oft- named twin varietal of Primitivo from Italy has been confusing to viticulturists for decades. Primitivo was not known in Italy until around 1860 and is thought to have been introduced from elsewhere. DNA testing from UC Davis in the 1990s confirmed that Zinfandel and the Primitivo grape from the Puglia region of Italy are the same grape. Both may be the descendent of a native grape of Croatia, Crljenak Kaötelanski, since the DNA results prove they are related. But so far there has not been a definitive answer. In fact, it is possible that Zinfandel traveled from the United States to Italy, and not the other way around. With the popularity of American Zin, some winemakers from Italy and Croatia want to market their wine as Zinfandel, so one thing is for sure- Zinfandel is here to stay and easier to pronounce!
©2013 text Black Sheep Wine and Beer Shop
Photo/Illustration Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Bigfoto.com,MorgueFile.com,personal photos of the author.