As we fire up the barbecue heading into the Fourth of July weekend, many an American will crack open a beer; but those among us who'd rather toast our patriotism with wine need look no further than "our" grape: zinfandel.
OK, it's not really from America. None of the vitis vinifera grapes are. If you want to go for an American native, find a member of the vitis aestevalis or labrusca species, which were not imported from Europe. I'd suggest a hearty variety called "norton" from Missouri.
But back to zinfandel: I submit it's probably the most "American" of the European grape varieties. A vigorous pioneer, it populated California vineyards early on, and there are still century-old vines out there producing. It responds quickly to market changes by boosting quantity, sweetness, or color as fashion demands. An assertive variety, its unmistakable flavor characteristics border on brash but retain an earnestness to please the palate.
Brought over in 1829 by George Gibbs from the Austrian imperial nursery, the grape quickly became known "zinfindal" among New England greenhouse table-grape growers.
No one is 100 percent sure where the name came from, but some think is a mislabeling of the unrelated Austrian grape called "zierfandler," which is white.
Zinfandel is a black grape variety and was shipped in 1852 to the West Coast, where it graduated from table grape to wine grape in Northern California. By 1859, zinfandel settled in quite nicely to Sonoma and Napa counties, where many gold diggers turned to digging dirt working in agriculture after the gold rush.
It can be coaxed into producing a huge amount of wine, so it became the favorite beverage of miners, '49ers and anyone else lured by California's promise of prosperity. Because of our early love for zinfandel, it's the varietal that accounts for some of the oldest vines in America, with roots that run deep.
It even persevered through Prohibition. Zinfandel grapes were transported by rail across the country and delivered to private basements where home winemakers tried their hand with this forgiving variety. It was also most similar to the homemade wines southern Italian immigrants remember from back home- and there's a reason for that.
With no French connection, few paid much attention to the heritage of this populist grape. But when DNA profiling came along in the early 1990's it was discovered that our adopted grape was originally from Croatia where it goes by tribidrag and crljenak kastelanski. It's also the same as the primitivo grape from southern Italy's Puglia region, which explains why it was Grandpa Consiglio's favorite.
Curiously, this dark grape became a household staple for '80s housewives when it turned pink. Bob Trinchero at Sutter Home was making a dry rosé from zinfandel grapes when the fermentation accidentally stopped; it's called a "stuck fermentation." Rather than throw more yeast in to get it going again, he bottled it in it's slightly sweeter state and by 1987 it was the top selling wine in the US. It took a pre-hipster throwback movement in the '90's to remind people that zinfandel was, in fact, a red wine grape that expresses itself through a spectrum of styles from feminine and floral to rugged and spicy. Wineries like Ridge, T-Vine, Turley, and Robert Biale showed the world how powerful zinfandel can be. And now with the popularity of dry rosé, some are boldly shaking off the negativity of the sweet white-zin tsunami and creating elegant dry white zinfandel for a new, more sophisticated wine drinker.
Here are a few interesting zins for your 4th of July weekend:
Turley White Zinfandel, Central Coast, CA ($20-23) While many rosés are crisp and light with a bit of the red characteristics hinted at, this zin is juicier, but certainly not sweet. More like Tavel than a rosé of Pinot Noir, Turley's white zinfandel is a trailblazer in the movement to re-introduce a new generation to the lighter side of zin.
Dashe Cellars "Les Enfants Terribles" 2015, Mendocino County, CA ($29-33) This is a very light incarnation of a big grape. Made using carbonic masceration, in which whole clusters are allowed to ferment before being crushed, the wine takes on the bright cherry flavors this process tends to pull from grapes. It tastes like the best Cru Beaujolais from Fleurie which, with a light chill, will fit perfectly in my right hand as I flip burgers with my left. Did I mention this is also made with no additives, unfiltered, unfined, and delicious? It is.