Discover the Provocative Exuberance of Californian Zinfandel
The wines from the USA are the third most popular New World wines we buy in Ireland after Australia and Chile and most of their wines (over 90%) come from its Golden State of California.
We are certainly not the first to find happiness in California. Gold became the metal magnet attracting a tidal wave of impoverished European immigrants across the North American continent in the Californian Gold Rush in the late 1840s. Clutching a few sparse possessions from their homeland, many brought seeds and vine plants to help them take root in a fertile new future of hope and potential.
One such vine was Zinfandel. Closely related to Primitivo, from Puglia, a wine region in the heel of Italy, but descended directly from a spell-check-defying Croatian varietal, Crljenak (pronounced: “tril-en-ock”) Kastelanski. Zinfandel has since flourished to become California’s signature black grape.
It is a testimony to Zinfandel’s resilience that it survived several catastrophes. Prohibition in 1919, when alcohol was banned for well over a decade resulting in the loss of generations of winemaking knowledge. The late twenties saw the ravages of the Great Depression. Half a century later, in the early 1980s, the double D spelled disaster for red wine: Dallas and Dynasty, lifestyle-influencing soap operas where stars with big hair and shoulder pads drank spritzers and Chardonnay. Teeth staining red wine went out of fashion and Blush was born.
This adaptability to produce a range of styles helped Zinfandel survive by satisfying the public’s ping-pong fickleness of taste between red, rosé/“blush” or white wines and from dry to medium-sweetness with alcohol levels equally erratic from 10% to over 15% ABV.
On the vine, Zinfandel’s grape cluster is like a V-shaped body builder. This shape accounts for three different levels of ripeness and flavours from the same bunch of grapes. The sun exposed shoulders may get over-ripe with potential high sugar and alcohol levels and a raisin-rich character. The main body getting an even ripeness with moderate alcohol and ripe blackberry flavours. While the overshadowed bottom tip of the bunch may have unripe, even green grapes and slightly vegetable and very crisp acidic flavours.
If the alcohol hovers around 10% in most wines, you can guess that not all the sugar in grape’s juice was fermented to alcohol, leaving a little residue of natural sweetness, typical of Zinfandel’s rosé style.
Fleshy, voluptuous and full-bodied, Zinfandel makes a potent, fruity and very approachable dry red. Perfect with assertive, salty and fruity dishes: barbecued steak, blackened Cajun chicken, salami, duck with black cherries, Chinese beef in a black bean sauce, Japanese teriyaki and blue cheeses. Here are the tastiest from a blind tasting.
Zinfandel – sunshine on tap.
Wines tasted and listed in ascending order from the lightest body to heavyweight:
Zinfandel Rosé 2015, “Sweet & Fruity”, Cimarosa
10.5% ABV – California
€5.69 – Available at 150 Lidl stores nationwide
Red cherry fruity aromas. Clean and genuine flavours with none of the confection that can distract from some rosé versions of Zinfandel. Off-dry with the natural sweetness countered by refreshing acidity underpinning the ripe strawberries dusted with a little icing sugar.
Food friend: Chill with a hot snack of cubed potatoes, courgettes and red peppers sweated in butter, turmeric and cumin seeds; prawns optional.
Zinfandel Rosé 2015, Reanne Valley
10.5% ABV – California
€9 – Available at Gerry’s Supermarket, Skerries; Hole in the Wall, Blackhorse Avenue and The Drink Store, Manor Street
Very appealing strawberry fruity aromas. Delicious ripe red berry fruits and typically light-bodied in alcohol with more fruitiness than sweetness on the entry. Excellent balance and very long finish. One of the best Zinfandel rosé wines I ever tasted.
Food friend: Serve chilled and take flight with a bowl of spicy chicken wings.
Zinfandel 2015, De Loach Heritage Reserve
13.5% ABV – California
€21.99 – Available at Londis Malahide; Blackrock Cellar; Clontarf Wines; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street; Searson’s, Monkstown; La Touche Wines, Greystones and JJ O’Driscoll’s, Cork
Aromas of red berries. In the mouth, more of a French accent than a Californian one hinting at the French ownership of the winery. Restrained and elegant with mocha, blackberry and tobacco leaf. Fresh red berry palate.
Food friend: Try with venison and juniper berry stew enriched with red wine and a teaspoon of cocoa powder.
Zinfandel 2013, Cline Family Cellars
14% ABV – Lodi, California
€19.95 – Available at Blackrock Cellars, Dublin and JNWine.com
Aromas of ripe raspberry and blackberry fruit but not jammy. A delicious medley of berry fruits, firm tannins and a mocha finish. Excellent balance with moderate alcohol integrated with the acidity and fruits.
Food friend: Go with a gamy dark meat – fried venison escalopes, batted thin with toasted Brazil nuts, wild mushrooms and a splash of Rich Madeira.
Zinfandel 2014, Chateau Montelena
14.5% ABV – Calistoga, Napa Valley, California
€45 – Available at Mitchell & Sons IFSC and Glasthule; Terroirs, Donnybrook; Searson’s, Monkstown and searsons.com and Carry Out, Cork
Rich and complex black fruits and a hint of leather and musk. Full-bodied and ripe with opulent black berry and bitter chocolate flavours but avoiding any confection. A peppery finish from the oak ageing. Very youthful and will benefit from further ageing (the impressive mansion displays a sign at the entrance: “No parking, unless you’re Irish”.)
Food friend: Requires a simple rich dark meat – duck topped with smoked rashers and roasted plums.
Zinfandel 2014, Seghesio
15% ABV – Sonoma County, California
€36.99 – Available at Jus de Vine; The Corkscrew; Red Island Wines, Skerries; Redmond’s; Power & Co Fine Wines, Lucan and Bradley’s, Cork
Made by an Italian immigrant family for over a century. A subtle scent of raisins coated in dark chocolate with a contrasting leather bouquet. A rich and powerful palate fuelled by the 15% alcohol with leather and blackberry fruits, but successfully avoiding being a fruit bomb. The alcohol is well-integrated and adds power and body rather than fire and brimstone. An Amarone of Zinfandels in the contemplative style.
Food friend: A sipping wine after a meal with hard cheese/almonds.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.