It's nothing like that sweet, blush wine.

By Sarah Tracey
Updated August 20, 2020
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bottle of red zinfandel being held in the vineyard with wild flowers in background
Credit: Courtesy of Rusack Vineyards

A versatile grape that can be used to produce a bold red wine or a sweet and light "blush" wine, zinfandel has a fascinating origin story. We're concentrating on red zinfandel here and shining a spotlight on this quintessential California wine that pairs so well with barbecue and other meats.

Zinfandel's Mysterious Past

During the gold rush era of the mid-19th century, European immigrants saw the opportunity to bring Old World vines to California (before that, the leading wine grape was called mission, brought up by missionaries from Mexico), but zinfandel was the one crop whose lineage has been very hard to trace. For many years zinfandel was thought to be one of the only fine wine grapes native to the United States.

Zinfandel grew abundantly across California and became known as the "all-American grape." Then, during the start of modern winemaking in California in the 1960s, researchers noticed a similarity between zinfandel and a Southern Italian grape called primitivo. Botanists dug a little deeper and found it had a nearly identical DNA fingerprint—but, not exact. The search for the exact genetic roots of zinfandel continued for decades, with vine samples being pulled from all over the globe seeing a match. Finally, in 2001, a DNA test from a 90-year-old vine collected from the garden of an elderly woman in Croatia was discovered to be an exact match. In Croatia, the grape is known as crljenak kastelanski.

What Is the Flavor Profile of Zinfandel?

The zinfandel grape can be used to make a robust red wine and, less commonly, white zinfandel—a sweet wine known as a "blush" wine. Even these two wines are made from the same grape, they couldn't be more different. White zinfandel is light, low-alcohol, and intensely sweet. Red zinfandel typically has a high alcohol content due to the abundant natural sugar present in the pre-fermented grapes and is fruity but dry with moderate levels of tannin. The fruit profile can range from ripe red raspberries to jammy dark cherry and plum. Typical secondary aromas and flavors in zinfandel include licorice, maple, black pepper, vanilla, and tobacco. Often zinfandel has a smoky finish. You will often see zinfandel labeled "old vine." In this context, that means the vines are older than 50 years, and the wine will be complex and concentrated in flavor. Old vine zinfandel will command a much higher price tag, expect to pay $40 and up for these wines.

Where Are Zinfandel Grapes Grown?

Today, over 50,000 acres of zinfandel grapes are grown across California: It's estimated that ten percent of California's vineyard acres are planted with zinfandel. The Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, and Dry Creek are iconic regions for benchmark zinfandel. You will also find excellent examples from Paso Robles, Amador County, and Lodi.

How to Serve and Pair Zinfandel

Because of its rich, concentrated, jammy flavors, zinfandel is fantastic with barbecue dishes. Try Smoky Baby Back Ribs with Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2018 ($15.99, wine.com) or Maple-Glazed Bacon with Sebastiani Sonoma County Zinfandel 2015 ($19.99, wine.com). An unexpectedly fabulous pairing for zinfandel is also Korean barbecue: We recommend Beef Bulgogi with Robert Biale Vineyards Black Chicken Zinfandel 2018 ($45.99, wine.com). Succulent meats like pork chops work nicely with the wine, too. Try making a dish like Pork Chops with Red-Wine Sauce paired with Ridge Paso Robles Zinfandel 2018 ($34.99, wine.com). And for a great vegetarian pairing, try zinfandel with roasted squash: Butternut Squash with Maple Butter pairs perfectly with Rusack Vineyards Ballard Canyon Estate Zinfandel 2016 ($48, rusack.com).

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