First published in the Irish Times, 19th March, 2016
I have always had a soft spot for the wines of California and Zinfandel in particular. Fresh out of college, I spent six glorious months in San Francisco. I spent a lot of time travelling up and down the nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys, and even more time drinking the lovely ripe- fruited wines that sold at ridiculously cheap prices. Many of these would have included Zinfandel in their make-up without mentioning it, but for a few dollars more you could buy a varietal Zin. These were rich, soft and powerful with an accessibility that made European wines seem sharp and unappetising. My tastes have changed over the years, but I still enjoy a good Zinfandel.
Zinfandel comes in three colours. You will find the odd genuinely white wine, stripped of both colour and flavour, but the majority of white Zinfandels are sweet rosé wines. Some mock them, but they provide many with an introduction to the pleasures of wine. Red Zinfandel is more serious, varying from rich and powerful to a more elegant style. All tend to have very ripe tannins, making them disarmingly easy to drink young, yet the best have the ability to age.
The variety first appeared in the mid-19th century. Many theories were advanced as to its origins but in the 1990s DNA proved that the Primitivo grape of Apulia (or Puglia) of Italy, was identical to that of Zinfandel. Many argued that the grape must have been brought over by Italian immigrants, although it predated them by several decades.It did not take Italian producers long to claim Primitivo as the original of the species, and to begin labelling their wines (particularly those going to the US) as Zinfandel. However, the trail continued to Croatia, where eventually a team of American and Croatian academics proved that an almost extinct variety called Crljenak Kastelanski was identical to both Primitivo and Zinfandel, and the parent of both.
There are plenty of very good small boutique Zinfandels produced in California, typically made from gnarled century-old vines that somehow survived prohibition.Most of these are snapped up by American enthusiasts before they can make their way over here. My favourite producer is Ridge, available through Jnwine.com. If you come across it in a restaurant, Frog’s Leap, imported by Berry Brothers & Rudd, is very good too. Beware mighty Zin though. This variety can reach heady port-like levels of alcohol – 16 per cent or more is not unusual.
The soft tannins and supple fruit make Zinfandel a good match for many foods, including most red and white meats. The richer style partners very well with grills, barbecues, spicy food (Mexican in particular) and rich robust stews.
De Loach Heritage Reserve Zinfandel 2014, 13.5%, €18.99
Generous and harmonious with mellow cassis and gentle spice.
Stockists: Blackrock Cellar; Clontarf Wines; Florries; Lotts & Co; On the Grapevine; McHughs; Red Island; Sweeney’s; World Wide Wine.
Gnarly Head Zinfandel 2013, Lodi, California, 14.5%, €18.99
Powerful and rounded with ripe dark fruits and a touch of vanilla.
Stockists: Donnybrook Fair; O’Briens; O’Donovan’s; Kelly’s; Jus de Vin; Baggot St Wines.