8 Interesting Facts about Zinfandel
Despite its Croatian and Italian roots, Zinfandel is known as being “classically Californian.” But how did it make its way to the West Coast, where it now thrives? Learn all about Zinfandel’s history with these fun facts!
Fact #1: It’s older than you may think
Many winegrapes that were used to make wine thousands of years ago died out over time. But not Zinfandel! Although Zinfandel is most often associated with California and (“newer”) New World wines, it is actually one of the oldest grape varietals still in production today. Zinfandel is thought to have been cultivated as early as 6,000 BC.
Fact #2: Its origins are Croatian
In the early 2000s, researchers at UC Davis concluded that California Zinfandel is genetically identical to the Primitivo grape (from the Puglia region in Italy). Since Primitivo is not native to Italy, Zinfandel’s origins still remained a mystery. Scientists took their research a step further, and eventually discovered just nine vines of an ancient Croatian varietal called Crljenak Kaštelanski on the Dalmation coast; through DNA analysis, they proved that these vines were identical to California Zinfandel.
Fact #3: Austria played a role in bringing Zinfandel to the U.S.
Historians believe that the Zinfandel grape made its way from Croatia to Austria when Croatia was under Austrian rule. Zinfandel showed up in the U.S. in the 1820s after nursery owner (and Long Island resident) George Gibbs purchased cuttings from the Imperial Collection of Plant Species in Vienna and transported them to his nursery.
In just 15 years, Zinfandel became a popularly grown varietal on the East Coast. It came to the West Coast by way of another nursery owner, Massachusetts native Frederick Macondray, who is believed to be the first to bring Zinfandel to California.
Fact #4: Its history in California is golden
Zinfandel arrived just in time to be embraced by California Gold Rush miners who appreciated the vine’s heartiness and its ability to thrive with the traditional European “head pruning” technique, which did not require vine training with then-scarce materials such as timber and wire. By 1888, more than one-third of all California vines were Zinfandel.
Fact #5: It fell out of fashion
Zinfandel narrowly survived phylloxera and Prohibition, only to be met with the biggest threat to its existence in California: wine-drinking trends. By the 1960s, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were the trendiest, most sought-after grapes in California, and vintners began replacing their Zinfandel vines with these more desirable grapes.
But not Bob Trinchero, who used his Sutter Home Winery Zinfandel to produce a dry wine in the rosé style. In 1975, Trinchero experienced a wine-making mishap: the yeasts died before they could convert all of the sugar in the wine to alcohol. This produced a sweeter, pink wine that Trinchero labeled “blush” and sold to those with a penchant for sweeter drinks. Sales skyrocketed . . . and White Zin was born.
Fact #6: It has a fan club
Zinfandel enthusiasts are one of a kind and have been gathering to promote Zinfandel (and share in their love of this varietal) for decades. This led to the founding of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP). The first ZAP tasting––which brought together 22 wineries!––was held in 1992 at San Francisco’s Mandarin Hotel. Today, the organization continues to promote the worldwide enjoyment of Zinfandel and works to preserve and share its rich history.
Fact #7: It comes in many styles
Zinfandel’s styles are as diverse as its history is rich. In addition to Trinchero’s White Zinfandel, Zinfandel is often made into a rosé style, a rich table wine with balance and complexity, or the “Big Style” Zinfandel, which is made from more ripe grapes and exhibits the “jammy” characteristic many know and love in this wine. While Zinfandel table wine tends to have an alcohol level of 13.5-14.5%, “Big Style” Zinfandel tends to have alcohol levels of anywhere from 14.5-16%.
Zinfandel is also made into port and late harvest wines to be slowly enjoyed after dinner or with dessert.
Fact #8: It’s California’s flagship wine
Zinfandel’s origins are European, but it has been cultivated commercially (and been so beloved) in the U.S.––and particularly, in California––for so long that it has become classically Californian. In fact, it’s considered to be California’s heritage grape, and is the third most widely planted grape in the state.