Basics: A Six-Bottle Master Class to Zinfandel | Wine Enthusiast
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A Six-Bottle Master Class to Zinfandel

Though Zinfandel did not originate in the United States, many affectionately view the variety as America’s heritage grape. Zinfandel was planted heavily in California during the 19th-century Gold Rush. Today, the variety represents a wealth of the state’s oldest surviving vines, capable of intriguing wines.

Consumers can compare various styles from California’s regions, or explore Zinfandel from Old World countries such as Italy or Croatia.

For many, “blush” wine was their first brush with Zinfandel. The grape has come a long way, literally and figuratively, from the white Zin of the 1970s to the diverse offerings today.

A Zinfandel vine at Turley
A Zinfandel vine at Turley / Photo by Julia Weinberg

Zinfandel expresses a range of aromas and textures. Bottlings range from fruity and approachable to dense and tannic. Tasting flights are the best way to learn to recognize those differences.

Organize your tasting by three key categories: Italian Primitivo versus California Zinfandel; white Zin versus dry rosé; and light and fresh versus big and concentrated. As you taste, search for distinct aromas, flavors and textures. Does the wine express red fruits or black fruits? Are the tannins slippery like glycerin, or grippy like astringent tea?

Of course, you’ll need to pick up a few bottles, so we’ve included tips on what to seek. If you can’t find exact matches, ask your favorite retailer to recommend alternatives.

Italian Primitivo vs. California Zinfandel

Primitivo Grapes on the vine
Primitivo grapes on the vine / Getty

Zinfandel’s long, epic voyage reads like Robinson Crusoe. It stretches from ancient Croatia, across Italy and to California during the Gold Rush. Evidence suggests the first Zinfandel was made in the Caucasus around 6000 BC.

Today, California Zinfandel is Italian Primitivo’s twin. Both stem from Croatia’s Tribidrag grape, also known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. Though these clones share genetic material, they behave differently due to terroir and winemaking.

Primitivo shines in southern Italy, particularly in the hot, arid vineyards of Puglia. Dark-skinned grapes produce wines high in alcohol and tannin, with deep color and concentrated flavors, though nuance exists across regions.

The most important appellation for the grape is the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) of Primitivo di Manduria. An interior swath of the Italian “heel” near the Ionian Sea, the region produces dense wines that taste of fig jam and dried citrus. Find softer, fruitier wines from Salento, or look to Gioia del Colle DOC for freshness and spice, due to sites that are higher in elevation.

Frequently, Italian winemakers age Primitivo in oak. Overall, the wines have more vibrant acidity, drier tannins and a more savory, earthy profile than California Zinfandels.

Zinfandel grows all over California, but some of the oldest vines can be found in Lodi, Amador County and even Napa, where a few weren’t ripped out to replace with Cabernet. Zinfandel soaks up the sun and ripens to high sugar levels, which in turn creates high-octane wines between 14–17% alcohol by volume (abv).

Riper tannins give California Zin a sweet, glossy polish. Many wines are full-bodied, jammy and spicy, a result of both the climate and winemakers who seek a ripe, extracted style.

Italian Primitivo vs. California Zinfandel Flight

Wine 1: For a classic Italian expression, seek out a bold Primitivo di Manduria bottle.

Wine 2: Zinfandel from Lodi or Amador County will show New World flare in spades.

White Zin vs. Dry Zinfandel Rosé

Zinfandel vines at Turley
Bille the dog in the Zinfandel vines at Turley / Photo by Whitney Turley

Zinfandel’s deep-hued and flavorful berries make it well-suited to rosé winemaking. In fact, Zinfandel became a household name years ago not for its reds, but for its blush-style wines called white Zinfandel.

White Zinfandel is actually a rosé made from red Zinfandel grapes. It was created accidentally at Sutter Home during the 1970s, when a batch of must, bled from a red-wine fermentation, failed to ferment dry. In other words, it’s sweet rosé made by the saignée method.

It transcended its humble beginning to become a U.S. phenomenon. Most examples have a few grams of residual sugar, like the five grams in Barefoot’s bottling. The wines taste juicy, fruity and overtly sweet, with notes of strawberry, watermelon, raspberry and spice.

For some, it’s a beloved wine that’s cheap, sweet and easy-drinking. For others, it’s the reason behind consumer hesitation to embrace rosé, as many associated pink wine with a candied drink.

Zinfandel from Turley
Zinfandel from Turley / Photo by Christina Turley

However, the negative perception of rosé has largely disappeared. Even white Zinfandel has enjoyed a renaissance as a dry wine with serious intentions from producers like Broc Cellars and Turley.

These newer examples are made intentionally, as the grapes are picked early and fermented dry in stainless steel to retain freshness and bright fruit character. This style is similar to Primitivo-based rosatos from Southern Italy.

Because Zin/Primitivo grapes have deep color, it only takes a few minutes for skins to turn a wine the color of azaleas. Wines taste of red berries and watermelon, but with more citrus and herb notes like mint. The best versions are crisp and invigorating.

White Zin vs. Dry Zinfandel Rosé Flight

Wine 1: Seek out a widely available bottlings of White Zin.

Wine 2: Dry a dry Zinfandel rosé from California, or even a Primitivo rosato from Puglia.

Light and Fresh vs. Big and Concentrated

Vineyards at Turley
Vineyards at Turley / Photo by Christina Turley

Collectively, California Zinfandel has been described as “rowdy,” “brawny,” “powerful” and “loud.” While it’s harder to make wines of restraint in warmer growing areas like Lodi and Paso Robles, the adjectives reflect a deliberate style that’s dominated the market for several decades.

Winemakers who seek to make high-octane showoffs allow grapes to hang on vines longer than usual to accumulate more sugar. While hang times compensate for the grape’s propensity for uneven ripening, some winemakers choose to overripen.

Producers can also use the saignée method of “bleeding off” a portion of the juice from the must to concentrate the color and taste of the remaining fermenting juice. Extended maceration, where grapes are left on the skins after primary fermentation ends, is another technique to deepen everything. These efforts result in a lush, boozy wine with jammy, baked dark-fruit flavors and a glycerin-sweet richness that approaches Port.

Old-vine Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley
Old-vine Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley / Getty

This style has its fans. However, Zinfandel can make lighter, vibrant wines sensitive to site, rather than technique. That movement has been afoot for a few years.

Dashe, Broc Cellars, Ridge and Turley have sourced fruit from cooler vineyards, picked grapes earlier for more pronounced acidity and lower alcohol levels, and took a lighter-handed approach in the winery.

Zinfandel not only tastes fresh at 12–14% alcohol, it can feel sheer, approximating the transparency prized in Pinot Noir. Flavors and aromas evoke glossy bramble berries, herbs and savory notes. Cooler sites around Santa Cruz Mountains, Sonoma and Mendocino give a tannic structure that’s more grip than polished opulence.

Light and Fresh vs. Big and Concentrated Flight

Wine 1: Find a Californian or Italian bottle that have 15% or more alcohol by volume listed on the label.

Wine 2: Find a Californian or Italian bottle that clocks in between 12–14% alcohol by volume.

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