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The History of Zinfandel

Zinfandel is not a white grape, though it can be made into a pink, slightly sweet spritzy rose-style wine called white zinfandel. Zinfandel was not brought to California by Colonel Agoston Haraszthy. It did not come from his mother’s yard in Hungary. Zinfandel is not an Italian grape, though it is planted in Italy and known as Primativo. Zinfandel did not, as one writer claimed, come from Mars. So now that we know what Zinfandel is not, let us explore what we know what Zinfandel IS.

What is Zinfandel?

Based on DNA evidence, California Zinfandel originated in Croatia. Zinfandel has been in Croatia a very long time, perhaps as early as 1300 b.c.e. This makes it one of the oldest grape cultivars that we make wine from today. The name for Zinfandel in Croatia is Crljenak (Tsir-le-a-nautz) Kastelanski (“black grape of Kastel”). That might be a clue as to why it was named Zinfandel when it arrived in America. Zinfandel is genetically identical to Primativo which probably migrated from Croatia to Italy in the late 1700’s.

Big River Vineyard

While there seem to have been several introductions of Crljenak (aka Zinfandel) into California (Delmas 1852, A.P. Smith 1853), the best documented introduction commenced in Austria where the grape was kept as part of the Schoenbrunn Collection of Horticultural materials from the Austria-Hungarian Empire. In 1829, Colonel George Gibbs received a shipment of vines from the Schoenbrunn collection sent to his estate in Queens, Long Island, New York that probably included Zinfandel. The Gibbs estate was later to be known as Ravenswood, and that region of Queens is currently known as Ravenswood. There is no connection between that Ravenswood and Ravenswood winery other than Zinfandel, though it is wonderful serendipity that the first home to Zinfandel in the New World and the most influential Zinfandel producer in the New World have the same name. Zinfandel, with the help of Colonel Gibbs, William Prince and Samuel Perkins, made its way from New York to Boston, where it was a regular staple of the nurseries and was grown in hot houses to produce table grapes in the 1830’s. Zinfandel was imported to California in 1852 by Fredrick Macondray who had the odd dichotomy in being involved in horticulture ventures and being a sea captain carrying on trade between California and Massachusetts.

Zin in California

In a very short time after its introduction to California, Zinfandel arrived in Napa and Sonoma and rapidly became California’s most important wine grape. “Zeinfandall” was first exhibited at the Mechanics Institute Exhibition in San Francisco in 1858. Much of the early planting was undertaken by New Englanders who had come to California with the Gold Rush. They had names like Osborne, Boggs, Hill, Carriger, Smith and Whittaker. There were 34,000 acres of Zinfandel planted by 1888, making it California’s most planted wine grape. Today there are about 54,000 acres, making it California’s second most planted red wine grape after Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel was adopted by the Italian immigrants that arrived in the late 1800 and early 1900’s who kept it thriving and alive through prohibition.

Barricia Vineyard

Zinfandel is frequently planted with Petite Sirah, Carignane, Alicante Bouchet and several other Mediterranean red grapes like Syrah and Grenache. Mixed Zinfandel vineyards were known as “mixed blacks”. Pre-prohibition blended Zinfandel wines were known as Claret or Burgundy or even Bordeaux. After prohibition, these wines became known as “dego red” because so much was made at home by Italian immigrants. It is likely that Zinfandel survived prohibition because of these home winemakers.

Viticulturally, Zinfandel is a vitis vinifera grape, which is the same family of grapes as other famous wine grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir. Zinfandel is a relatively vigorous vine that produces relatively large clustered grapes with moderately large berries that are tightly packed in the cluster. Its distinctive characteristic is its uneven ripening. When a cluster is ripe, each berry within the cluster will range in ripeness from slightly under ripe to somewhat desiccated and overripe. This propensity towards uneven ripeness is part of the reason that the best Zinfandels frequently have alcohols between 13.5 – 15.5% by volume. The nature of the grape makes it perfectly adapted to the California climate and allows it to thrive in a way that it hadn’t in other environments. In California, virtually all the rain falls in the winter. In the spring and summer, the humidity is low with hot to warm days and cool, marine-influenced nights. This is perfect for a grape that ripens relatively early and rots fairly easily if it gets wet at the wrong time. This fact may be one of the reasons that it is no longer grown in any significant amount in Croatia and why it has become California’s Heritage Grape.

Zinfandel vines are the oldest vines in California and among the oldest wine producing vines in the world. There are vines in Sonoma Valley that are probably the oldest grafted vines in California going back to 1885, and there may be even older vines on their own roots in Amador County. These old vines produce some of the most exceptional wine in California, rivals to any great wine of the world. Ravenswood is working with UC Davis and ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) on the Zinfandel Heritage Project to preserve Zinfandel heritage selections and to differentiate potential clonal variations of Zinfandel. Ninety selections have been collected from vineyards planted before 1920. Twenty of those that were virus free appeared to show substantial variation and have been selected and propagated for winemaking trials. Select Zinfandel clonal material from these trials will be released to the grape growing community in 2011 or 2012, setting the stage for planting the great Zinfandel vineyards of the next millennium.

Meet Winemaker Joel Peterson

MEET JOEL PETERSON

The rakish raconteur, provocateur and revolutionary whose erudition and down-to-earth enthusiasm make him the stylistic trendsetter who helped make Zinfandel the runaway phenomenon it is today.

More About Joel »

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