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Not So Primitive

By Debra Meiburg MW

Zinfandel is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the wine world: full of muscle and striving to be taken seriously. And, like Arnie, Zinfandel is of European heritage, but now a California resident.

Because of its ease in shouldering powerhouse alcohol levels, Zinfandel was a popular drink with miners during California’s gold rush. Prolific and good-natured, Zinfandel vines unfailingly churned out mammoth quantities of wine as commercial —and popular—as Arnie’s films. Zinfandel was so poorly regarded in the 1970’s that my parents uprooted a few acres of precious heirloom vines to landscape a rose garden. Until the late 1980’s, the bulk of California’s Zin production was fermented into a sweet blush wine marketed as “white Zinfandel” and sold in five liter casks with handy plastic spigots.

The origin of this brawny grape and its arrival in the Golden State was a brainteaser for decades with both southern Italy and Croatia claiming to be the motherland. When DNA fingerprinting determined Zinfandel is almost identical to a variety known as Primitivo in Italy, the southern Italian wine industry was jubilant as the news gave them a niche in the lucrative American market. Some producers went so far as to cheekily declare “from old vine Zinfandel” on labels of Primitivo bottlings. Zin lovers quickly noted that the grape variety might be the same, but when it comes to bottles labeled Primitivo, the accent is clearly Italian. Primitivo brandishes a distinctly rustic character without the lush dark fruit and spice found in classic California Zinfandel.

The Terminator once attributed his bodybuilding success to a keen interest “in proportion and perfection.” And proportion is the key to quality in Zinfandel. Zinfandel clusters have a propensity to ripen quickly but unevenly, so vineyard care and attention are needed to develop an elegant profile. In the finest examples, the wine’s intense richness is delicately balanced with the refreshing acids contributed by under-ripe grapes in the cluster. This tartness is critical for the wine’s balance and proportion as Zinfandel’s tannins are typically soft, leaving none of the dry astringent sensations one finds with tougher wines, such as young Cabernet Sauvignon.

Zinfandel has not made much of an inroad into the European and Asian markets, but it is wildly popular with Americans. So much so, that Australia, South Africa and southern France are now experimenting with the grape. The finest Zinfandel producers are based in Northern California and while Napa Valley produces many top quality Zinfandel wines, the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County is the undisputed Mr. Universe of Zinfandel. Producers such as Rancho Zabaco, Alderbrook, Mazzocco and Ferrari-Carano consistently produce good quality examples. Another highly regarded district is the warm Sonoma Valley, which is home to Ravenswood, a winery that produces a range of Zinfandels, such as Ravenswood’s California Vintner’s Blend. Lush textures and spicy flavors make Zinfandel a popular wine match during the holiday season. Go ahead, try it. You’ll be back!

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Comments 4 Comments for “Not So Primitive”
  1. Matthew Rinkerman on 10.03.14 at 18:22

    Do not forget Mendocino or Paso Robles !

  2. The Week in Zinfandel (9/29/14) | Zinfandel Chronicles on 10.06.14 at 21:02

    […] Debra Meiburg writes Not so Primitive. […]

  3. Riccardo Margheri on 10.06.14 at 23:10

    In Spring I have had the pleasure to taste a wide array of Primitivos, being hosted by the local association of producers.
    IMHO, the rustic character You have mentioned is disappearing, and I have found plenty of samples clean, well balanced and with a pleasantly surprising freshness, making them lighter to drink and more easily food matching. Almost no winemaking mistakes and overripe tones. Not to say about the depth developed by the older vineyards closer to the sea.
    There are still some labels made in an older (but fascinating) style, relying upon a slight oxidation to develop meaty, spicy and jammy tertiary hints. A different interpretation of course, but not without charm.
    I don’t know if I can link here my tasting impressions, published on an Italian web wine magazine, but i would be pleased to.
    Kind regards
    Riccardo Margheri

  4. morton hochstein on 10.06.14 at 23:35

    debra..i was hoping to find Dry Creek on you list of fine Zin producers. It has, for several decades, produced several versions, all of them highly recommendable.

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