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Zinfandel / Primitivo / Tribidrag

photo of Zinfandel by Tim Ramey.Primativo cluster.For more than a century, Zinfandel was somewhat of a mystery grape, as far as its origin was concerned. Research in Croatia and at the University of California at Davis, using DNA profiling in 2011, proved Zinfandel is a clone of the Croatian variety Crljenak Kaštelanski, also known by its less popular but more historical name Tribidrag. While it had been theorized that Zinfandel's genetic twin, the Italian Primitivo, was the source, this grape also originally mutated from Tribidrag. Further research may indicate the very first cuttings of Zinfandel migrated to America by way of Albania or Greece.

In April, 2002, the TTB announced they are considering ruling Zinfandel and Primitivo synonymous for use on wine labels. Producers of California Zinfandel objected, anticipating that Italian producers could undercut the market with inexpensive Primitivo wine labeled "Zinfandel".

Zinfandel came to the United States c. 1829, when New York nurseryman George Gibbs carried back various cuttings from the Imperial Austrian plant species collection. Over the next two decades, Zinfandel became a popular table grape in the Northeast U.S. Although Agoston Harazsthy's son claimed his father brought Zinfandel to California and also mounted a large and largely successful publicity campaign that included falsified documents in order to prove his case, records show that Massachusetts nurseryman Frederick Macondray1 introduced zinfandel to California c. 1852. Regardless, Zinfandel was considered virtually indigenous to California, where it thrived since the mid-1850's. Its popularity peaked during the final two decades of the 19th century, when it was the most widely-planted grape in the state. Zinfandel remains today one of California's most popular and prolific grape varieties.

Nearly as versatile as chardonnay in the number of different styles of wine produced from it, zinfandel only achieved widespread popularity in America, starting about 1980, as a pink, slightly sweet wine. In fact, this popularity so outstripped all other forms, that many fans think that there is actually a grape called "White Zinfandel" (there isn't)!

Zinfandel as a red wine can be made light and fruity, much like French Beaujolais, or lively, complex and age worthy, like Cabernet or claret. It can also be made into big, ripe, high alcohol style wine that resembles Port. Zinfandel is also often the base of many proprietary red blends in California, since it is the most widely planted red wine grape in the Central Valley.

This vineyard proliferation can be attributed to zinfandel's hardy nature. Adaptable to a wide range of soils and climates, its vines tend to be vigorous and productive. It thrives in warm to very warm regions that have average seasonal temperatures between 65° and 70° F. Zinfandel also has a frequent tendency to set a second crop.

The clusters are compact and full and the berry stems (peduncles) somewhat short. These factors make Zinfandel somewhat susceptible to bunch rot and some types of mildew. Water management is particularly critical to raising Zinfandel. Under stress from lack of moisture, it is prone to raisining. It also ripens more unevenly than most other varieties and it is not uncommon for green and raisined berries to occur within the same cluster. This tendency to can be aggravated by poorly-timed irrigation. Uneven ripening also means that machine-picking is impractical and a Zinfandel vineyard may often require a few passes, days apart, to harvest all the fruit with the same level of maturity.

Because of its vigor, abundant production and resistance to vine disease, many zinfandel vineyards exist that are 75 to 100 or more years old. Zinfandel aficionados believe these "old vines" produce the best wines, because the older vineyards set smaller crops and the grapes tend to ripen more evenly.

At its best, Zinfandel (red) has a very fruity, raspberry-like aroma and flavor and a "jammy" quality.

*Typical Zinfandel Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques, so this list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive, merely suggestive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruit: raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry, cranberry, black cherry

Carbonic Maceration: tutti-frutti, candy, bubblegum

Herbal: briar, licorice, nettle

Oak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood

Spice: cinnamon, black pepper

Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar


Bottle Age: musk, mushroom, earth, leather cedar, cigar box

Zinfandel is one red varietal that is probably best enjoyed in its youth, within three to five years of the vintage. With more bottle age than this, the luscious fruit that distinguishes Zinfandel drops markedly and the wine can show a pronounced "hot" taste of higher alcohol levels and become more neutrally vinous. It is sometimes hard even for experienced tasters to pick an older Zinfandel from among similar-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance (not that there's anything wrong with that).

When paired with outdoor-grilled steaks or chops or meat that has been stewed with or stuffed with fruit, Zinfandel becomes a prime motivation for people to become wine-lovers.

by Jim LaMar

Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, better known as ZAP, promotes Zinfandel Appreciation with educational articles and links on their web site, including a Zinfandel-specific Aroma Wheel. They also sponsor and conduct public tastings in selected cities throughout the wine world.

Jasenka Piljac has written Zinfandel: A Croatian-American Wine Story, chronicling her fascinating and picturesque experiences as a key researcher and translator for Dr. Carole Meredith in the search for the varietal's origins in the author's ancestral homeland.

1. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

2. Resource Guide to Zinfandel, (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers: Rough & Ready, CA) 2008

3. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

4. Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine, (Chronicle Books: San Francisco) 1996

5. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

6. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

7. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

8. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

9. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

10. Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator's: The Essentials Of Wine, (Wine Spectator Press: New York) 2000

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Page created February 21, 2000; last updated November 2, 2016
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