For years Zinfandel was thought to be America’s own noble grape. It arrived on the East Coast and made the trip to California by the mid-1800s along with the 49ers. When Prohibition and the Great Depression hit the nation, Zinfandel’s roots were lost and people called it as American as baseball, hot dogs apple pie and Chevrolet.
But seeds of doubt began to grow. Historians found records showing that Zinfandel was first imported from an Austrian nursery sometime in the early 19th century. For a long time, that was as far as they got. By the 1960s, theories said that the grape was same as the Italian Primitivo. Ampelographers (one of John Eld’s favorite words!) compared the two and noted that Zin looked a lot like Primitivo, and enough so to declare them the same.
During the 1970s, it was thought that Primitivo was an Italian clone of the Croatian grape Plavac Mali. Although this wasn’t true, researchers did discover Zin was a parent to this variety, which drove them to see if there wasn’t some truth in the idea that Primitivo/Zinfandel was Croatian. After searching the Dalmatian Coast and comparing DNA from local vines, they found the missing link, the pre-Primitivo Crljenak Kaštelanski. Also known as Tribidrag, Zinfandel was confirmed to be Croatian and cultivated since at least the 15th century. It took until the ’90s for grape geneticists to determine that Primitivo and Zinfandel are clones of the same variety.
But how did it come to be the symbol of Californian wine? While many other vines were uprooted during Prohibition, Zinfandel found a spot in the homemade wine market. In the jug wine days of the US wine industry, Zinfandel fell to the wayside and probably would have stayed there if it weren’t for that wine that people love to hate, White Zinfandel.
For anyone out there who has ever made a snide comment about White Zinfandel, it’s time to stop. It’s thanks to the sweet blush that many of California’s old Zinfandel vines got a stay of execution. Winemakers are going to plant whatever is most lucrative. Producing wine is expensive, so it’s easy to sympathize. But there are casualties to this pursuit of profit. Across the globe, both old vines and indigenous grape varieties which grow nowhere else in the world have been uprooted in favor of the popular international varieties and disappeared forever. And so it would have been for California’s Zinfandel vines, some of which are over 100 years old, if it hadn’t been for the exceptional popularity of White Zin in the ’70s and ’80s.
Today, the interest is in making premium old vine reds from the grape. Zinfandel is the second most planted red grape in California after Cabernet Sauvignon according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s annual grape acreage report. Outside of the States, Italy is the other major country for the grape, and both made wines across the entire range of dry to sweet.
However you like to drink it, Italian, Croatian, rosé, late harvest, old vine, homemade, or out of a box, Zin is a winner that, like most of what made America great, has international roots.