Zinfandel is often thought of as the ‘California grape.’ They give a uniquely California style, and the vines and the vineyards are an integral part of the landscape and the history of California viticulture. And old vines and distinctive vineyards are where this variety finds its richest expression.
Why is Zinfandel thought of as California’s own grape variety? It is grown extensively and successfully in many parts of the state, and is little-known anywhere other than California. However, like all other fine wine varieties – all vitis vinifera vines – it came to us via Europe. But, unlike many of the classic European grapes, it has almost disappeared from the wine scene in its homeland: whereas Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir still have European benchmarks, there is no longer a classic tradition of making Zinfandel in Europe. It almost seems that Zinfandel found its home when it arrived in California.
Recent research, in documentary sources and DNA-analysis, has identified the original variety as Tribidrag from the Dalmatian coast, in what is modern-day Croatia. Because there is no obvious European archetype, there were mixed theories of its origin for a long time. It was at one point thought to be a descendent of Plavac Mali, a grape still commercially relevant in Croatia; but it was subsequently identified through DNA analysis as Crljenak Kaštelanski, in fact one of the parents of Palac Mali. This name means simply the red grape from Kaštela, but documentary research now suggests that Tribidrag was the historic name. Primitivo, which is grown extensively in southern Italy, is very closely related, but very different in many respects from Zinfandel.
In California, it produces a range of styles of wines. At one end of the spectrum, it can be made into a pleasant light rosé, by pressing off the skins early and fermenting just the juice. But it is the full-bodied rich reds that are the icons of this California variety: these wines are rich in flavor, deliver easy satisfaction and enjoyment, yet are complex and alluring, and their character and expressions can connect the connoisseur to specific regions, vineyards and families, and carry our minds back through the history of California wine.
Many suggest that the finest expressions of this variety come from old vines, and the most intriguing personalities come from single vineyards. Old vines tend to produce less fruit, but these grapes can have more intensity, more persistence of flavor and more fascinating nuances, depths and complexities. Some of these vines approach or exceed a hundred years of age, and their wines resonate with the sense of the place where their roots have tapped and their branches have swayed for a century. Science cannot easily explain or verify this suggestion. But artists, aesthetes and lovers of the magic that is wine are rightly drawn into the intrigue and fun of exploring old-vine single-vineyard Zinfandels.
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