Food and wine 

Catchin’ some ZZZs with zin: The California icon with staying power

Almost all zinfandel, and certainly the best of it, is grown only in California. Now, thanks to recent developments in DNA science, we know enough about its origins to dispense with the speculation about where this modern-day California icon was born.

Records suggest zinfandel was widely planted throughout California by the early 1850s, although its heritage would remain a source of speculation and mystery for nearly 150 years to follow. By the late 1960s plant geneticists were analyzing the vineyards of the world using DNA mapping techniques. Early results pointed them toward southern Italy, where they discovered that zinfandel, and the Italian red variety, primitivo, are different clones of the same variety.

The search for the original primitivo/zinfandel vine then jumped across the Adriatic Sea to Croatia where it was thought primitivo originated under the “plavac mali” moniker. Tests came back negative, although it seems the plavac mali grape turned out to be a relative. This discovery narrowed the search to the central Dalmatian coastal strip and its offshore islands.

Eventually a matching DNA fingerprint was found among vine samples — the identical grape was identified as the crljenak kaštelanski. Scientists now agree that California’s zinfandel is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grape crljenak kaštelanski, and to the primitivo variety traditionally grown at Puglia, the “heel” of Italy.

In spite of its European lineage, zinfandel remains California’s signature grape much the same as pinotage is to South Africa, malbec is to Argentina,or sauvignon blanc is to New Zealand.

How the vines travelled to California and were transformed into modern-day zinfandel remains a mystery but the results are not. Wine drinkers have a passion and an affinity for zinfandel they seldom display for other grapes. Zinfandel may have had its feathers ruffled in the rush to shiraz, pinot noir and lately malbec but the grape with the big fruity, friendly demeanour remains the original California cult classic.

Proof of zinfandel’s staying power occurs every year in late January when hundreds of aficionados gather in San Francisco at what amounts to be a state-of-the-union tasting at the Fort Mason Center, put on by members of the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP). This year marks the 17th anniversary of the annual event that features 275 producers and 550 wines.

Zinfandel has been aptly described as a comfortable old pair of shoes or akin to sitting in your favourite armchair. For me, zinfandel is all about soft texture, low tannin and an easy-sipping style with the proviso that high alcohol can be an issue from sample to sample.

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