Culinary Arts

A Guide to Red Zinfandel, White Zinfandel, and How to Pair Zinfandel Wines

Written by MasterClass

Jul 2, 2019 • 4 min read

The zinfandel grape, long associated with California, is the main component of many food-friendly, richly flavored wines that are bolder than delicate pinot noir and more approachable than tannic cabernet sauvignon. Zinfandel grapes often come from vines that can be a century old, giving depth and complexity to these easy-to-love wines.

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What Is the Zinfandel Grape?

Zinfandel is a red wine grape variety that is the second most planted red grape in California. The grape makes robust, aromatic, juicy wines that are high in alcohol. Zinfandel was the wine of miners during the Gold Rush, gaining a reputation as the “Bordeaux of California”, but it declined in popularity following Prohibition. Zinfandel is not grown with the zeal that it once was, but the few examples on the market are high quality wines that showcase the grape’s exuberant fruit profile and complexity from being grown on old vines.

What Are the Origins of the Zinfandel Grape?

Zinfandel is an ancient grape that originated on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, where it is called crljenak kaštelanski or tribidrag. Ampelographers (grapevine scientists), led by Carole Meredith at UC Davis, discovered zinfandel’s Croatian roots in the early 2000s. They also found that the zinfandel grown in California and Croatia is genetically identical to the grape called primitivo, which is grown in the southern Italian region of Puglia.

What Climate Is Best Suited for Growing Zinfandel?

Zinfandel favors a warm but not hot climate. The grapes have thin skins which shrivel under too much sun. A dry climate is best, as the tightly-packed grape bunches can rot if there is too much moisture in the air. While the grapes require lots of attention in the vineyard, zinfandel vines themselves are hardy and productive.

Where Does Zinfandel Grow?

The Central Valley of California produces the majority of California’s zinfandel for bulk wine. California, especially in the Amador County and the Russian River Valley wine regions, also has many vines dating back over 100 years to the Gold Rush era. Old vine zinfandels are spicier and slightly lower in alcohol.

Many agree that the best region for high quality zinfandel wine is in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, which has warm days and cool nights that are ideal for ripening the finicky grape. In the nearby Napa Valley, premium zinfandel is often aged in new oak barrels, similar to cabernet sauvignon.

Outside the US, the zinfandel grape is grown widely in Puglia, Italy (where it is known as primitivo), and in smaller quantities in Croatia, France, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.

What Are the Characteristics of the Zinfandel Grape?

The zinfandel grape is both unique and approachable. The wines tend to be fruit-forward with moderate tannins and a ripe, sweet finish.

  • Fruit basket: Zinfandel is the only red wine grape that regularly shows a variety of fruit flavors, meaning that you can find complex aromas of strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries all in the same glass!
  • Uneven ripening: Zinfandel grapes in the same cluster can be underripe, fully ripe, and raisinated. The under ripe grapes help zinfandel keep its juicy acidity, while the more ripe grapes bring baked, jammy fruit flavors.
  • Stylistically adaptable: Zinfandel on its own makes a juicy, medium-bodied wine that’s easy to drink because of its restrained tannins. But it’s also a fabulous blending partner to the other “mixed black” wine grapes of California, like petite sirah, carignan, and grenache. Zinfandel takes well to oak aging, which adds spicy flavors like cinnamon and nutmeg while not overwhelming the grape’s natural flavors.

What Kinds of Wines Are Made with Zinfandel?

Zinfandel is made in three primary styles in California:

  • Red zinfandel: Sometimes called “red zin” for short, this is a classic California red wine, with ripe fruit flavors, high alcohol, and often a touch of residual sugar. Red zin can be oaked or unoaked. In this style of wine, zinfandel is sometimes blended with other red grapes to give it more tannin and body.
  • White zinfandel: This is not actually a white wine but a slightly sweet rosé style invented by Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home in the 1970s. It was hugely popular in the 1980s, outselling red zinfandel six to one.
  • Dessert wine: Zinfandel shrivels easily in the sun, which makes it ideal for dessert wine production. The raisined grapes, concentrated with sugar and flavor, must be harvested by hand, so these wines are often fairly expensive.

How Does Wine Made with Zinfandel Taste?

Zinfandel is known for its aromatic fruit flavors, which gain intensity the later its harvested. From least to most ripe, these flavors include:

  • Cranberry
  • Raspberry
  • Cherry
  • Peach yogurt/peach gummy candy
  • Blackberry
  • Blueberry
  • Fig
  • Raisin

Zinfandel aged in oak barrels will have additional flavors of:

  • Vanilla
  • Coconut
  • Mocha
  • Baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove)

How Do You Pair Zinfandel Wine?

Food pairing with zinfandel is easy because of its refreshing acidity and moderate tannins. Try red Zinfandel with dishes that have fruit elements or slight chili heat to harmonize with the sugar in the wine, like:

Learn more about wine appreciation in James Suckling’s MasterClass.