By The Glass
Zinfandel gets a makeover
MANY people now believe that the zinfandel grape came to the United States from a nursery in Vienna and was first cultivated on the East Coast. It came to California with the Gold Rush and made its way to Italy sometime after that.
Because of the number of European immigrants settling in California in those days, there developed a need for grapes to be grown for home winemaking and consumption at the family dinner table.
One could surmise that zinfandel was quite the popular grape back then -- because of the abundance of old, old zinfandel vines still around today. Nowhere near as many old, old chardonnay, merlot or cabernet vines can be found.
For a growing number of wine drinkers, zinfandel is "America's grape" and the red version is amazingly popular.
But as with all things, zinfandel is again undergoing change and, for some of the old-timers, not necessarily for the better.
Many old vines are being replaced, and it is becoming increasingly popular to replant with the primitivo clone of zinfandel, especially on the part of the larger wineries.
Two of my favorite zin makers have noted that genetic testing has proven that zinfandel is the same as Italy's primitivo.
What does this mean?
Here is what one of them had to say: "Primitivo is a much darker grape with loose clusters and can make a concentrated wine out of grapes from young vines. It is amazing that you can call it zinfandel, because I think it is too different to be the same genetically. But, that is what I have been told.
"It is a lot easier to grow because it does not rot as much and it makes a darker deeper wine. It is not the zinfandel California grew up with, but it will be the zinfandel of the future. ... I don't like it as well, but I appreciate its boldness, dark color and loose clusters that don't rot as easy."
Here is what the other had to say: "Although primitivo and zinfandel have been proven to be genetically identical, it seems that primitivo in Italy has evolved clonally to be slightly different (better color, looser clusters) than our original zinfandel here in California. Primitivo is just a particular clone of zinfandel."
Here are a few "boutique" zins for you to try, from the old vines, so that you have a baseline to judge the changes we will see in upcoming years.
2004 Four Vines Zinfandel "Old Vines" (under $11): Winemaker Christian Tietje is one fanatical zin-meister and one who hasn't gone over-the-top commercial. For this bottling, he sources old-vine fruit from Mendocino, Amador, Paso Robles, Napa and Sonoma.
2002 Scherrer Zinfandel "Old & Mature Vines" ($27): I often refer to this wine, by one of my favorite winemakers, as an old-vine zin crafted by a truly superb pinot maker. The wine has elegance, class and is deliciously suave.
2003 Carol Shelton MongaZin ($25): The fruit comes from a Cucumonga vineyard planted in 1918. It's a cornucopia of ripe red fruit with exotic spices, like cumin, cardamom and nutmeg, made with elegance and deliciousness.
2004 Carlisle Zinfandel "Carlisle Vineyard" $40): Planted in 1926 in the Russian River appellation of California, this organically farmed vineyard would be a zin grand cru if there were such a thing. The wine offers an explosion of black raspberry fruit intertwined with briary spice, yet is surprisingly elegant, classy and refined.
Chuck Furuya is a master sommelier, a partner in the Sansei restaurants and a consultant to Southern Wine & Spirits.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org