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
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
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.