No, zinfandel is not an American grape. As with the vast majority of world-class wines, its origin is Old World. If you want to read about it in “Wine Grapes,” the authoritative encyclopedia by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, you are advised to look under “tribidrag,” as it’s called in Croatia, zinfandel’s birthplace.
Such rigid taxonomy may provoke eye-rolling among practical-minded Americans, who rightly note that whatever recognition is due tribidrag is a result of the grape’s having traveled to California and become known worldwide as zinfandel. Tribidrag also has another moniker, primitivo, as it’s called in the Puglia region of Italy.
Eric Asimov, The New York Times wine critic, is talking about zinfandel this month. If you would like to join the conversation, try one of the bottles listed here and as you try them, ask yourself these questions :
In California, zinfandel has had moments of wide embrace and others of dismissal. Its dominant stylistic expression seems to vary by decade and has ranged from clear, taut and spicy to extravagant, huge and syrupy.
I’ll admit I’ve had my own struggles with zinfandel. I’m not a fan of the blockbuster style that was in vogue in the first decade of this century. But as with so many wines, a stylistic shift has occurred with zinfandel, with more producers gravitating toward fresher, nuanced wines.
The three zinfandels I suggest you look for this month more or less encompass the range of styles:
Dashe gravitates toward the fresher style, while at one time Turley epitomized the extravagant style, though its wines, while still big, have become livelier and more precise. Ridge is consistently right down the middle, as it has been for decades. Comparing the three would be particularly rewarding.
As always, not everybody will be able to find these examples. Each of these three producers makes more than a few zinfandel cuvées. The others are fine, too, and as an alternative you might consider wines from Nalle, Frog’s Leap, Ravenswood, Sky, Porter Creek, Bedrock, Green & Red, Broc Cellars, Limerick Lane, Rafanelli, Outpost, Quivira, Seghesio and Neyers.
Zinfandel will complement burgers, barbecued ribs and other robust meats. It will also go well with grilled sausages, pizza, even eggplant Parmesan, although you may have more difficulty finding good matches with the bigger styles.
Temperature is important: If the wine is too warm, especially in the summer, it will be flaccid and fatiguing. You don’t want to serve it icy cold, just cool, after maybe 20 minutes in the fridge.