Sadly, Zinfandel is the Rodney Dangerfield of red wines. Why? Everyone enjoys it, but very few people want to take it home to dinner! In addition to getting no respect, the truth is Zinfandel has an identity problem. In fact, it has multiple identities. (Are you listening, Dr. Freud?)
The grape is so versatile that winemakers produce it in a variety of styles. From white to blush, from lighter-styled to medium -bodied, and from full-throttle to purple monster, zinfandel can be a confusing wine to buy. And therein lies the problem.Everything about the grape is mysterious and confusing - even its origin.
Zinfandel is commonly referred to as “America’s grape” even though its original home has been the subject of some heated debate. Zinfandel vine cuttings were brought to California in the 1850s and the first plantings were made in Sonoma County near the town of Sonoma. While everyone agrees that Zinfandel belongs to a European classification of grapes known as vitis vinifera, experts have argued over the country of origin. Some contend that Zinfandel is really a grape variety known as Primitivo from southern Italy. The most recent research into the DNA of Zinfandel indicates, however, that the grape is Crljenak (I’ll give you one of my coveted old Zinfandels if you can pronounce this) and is actually from Croatia.
Regardless of its origin, everyone accepts the fact that California is where the grape has been planted and where it has flourished. Unfortunately, in the hierarchy of winedom, Zinfandel has always been disrespected, particularly when it is compared to Cabernet Sauvignon or other red varietals such as Pinot Noir, Merlot or even Syrah. While I always resist comparisons of grapes which are dissimilar in flavor and texture, it is my opinion that the best Zinfandel being made today is qualitatively equal to the best California Cabernet being produced. And, despite what some wine experts contend, the stuff can age gracefully, too. I opened a 1981 Sutter Home Amador County Zinfandel recently and was amazed by the complexity of the wine, which exhibited teaberry mint aromas and rich, chocolate flavors.
One important benefit of Zinfandel’s Rodney Dangerfield reputation is that you can still find a superb wine for under $20. So how do you know which Zin to pick for tonight’s dinner? Well, the wine does share some general characteristics (such as dark berry, spicy, briary and peppery flavors) that cross all stylistic permutations. However, the easiest way to pick the right Zin is to categorize the wine according to its weight and intensity of flavor. Below are some of my favorite Zinfandels rated by intensity and weight and some matching food suggestions. Incidentally, these wines range in price from about $10 to no more than $30 a bottle.
LIGHTER-STYLED WINES: Peachy Canyon Incredible Red; Red Truck; Marietta Old Vines Red; Bogle; and Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend. Try these with pizza, grilled hamburgers or meatloaf.
MEDIUM-BODIED WINES: Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines; Sebastiani Sonoma; Seghesio Old Vines; Dry Creek Vineyards; Ridge Geyserville; Renwood Old Vines; Folie A Deux Amador; and Rosenblum Paso Robles. Good with roasted pork tenderloin, grilled salmon or barbecued chicken.
FULL-BODIED WINES: Ridge Lytton Springs; Renwood Grandpere; Montevina Terre D’Oro; Chateau Montelena; Grgich-Hills; Storybook Mountain Eastern Exposure; and Hartford Russian River Valley. Try these purple monsters with pasta in marinara sauce, hearty stews, grilled rack of lamb and garlic flavored and roasted meats.