By Harry Stoll
Zinfandel has been heralded as America’s Grape. The claim was that it was grown and made into wine only here. But as with almost all of us, it was an immigrant. In Croatia, where it almost certainly originated, it is known as crljenak kaštelanski (literally “black from Kaštelanski,” and pronounced as spelled).
There is more than one version of how it made its way to America and to California. I favor the one from Sonoma County Ravenswood Winery founding winemaker Joel Peterson, because he’s a zin wonk who wears a cowboy hat.
The Ravenswood website has a “Zintroduction” in which Patterson notes, “... 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.” (Crljenak Kaštelanski.)
He goes on to explain, “... 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 1830s. 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.”
The Wine Institute states, “… The Zinfandel name, however, is truly American—the earliest and only documented use of the name is in America where a Boston nursery owner advertised Zinfandel for sale in 1832.”
That would be Colonel Gibbs, but how did he come up with the name? The marketing website VIVINO claims in New England it “… was referred to as Zenfendal, a play on its Hungarian name tzinifándli.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary agrees that zinfandel is probably a modification of the obsolete Hungarian tzinifándli.
Until recently, crljenak kaštelanski hadn’t been grown in Croatia for centuries, possibly since troops of the Ottoman Empire swept through. But in 2000, Edi Maletic and Ivan Pejic, of the University of Zegreb in Croatia, and DNA expert Carole Meridith, of the University of California, Davis, who had been looking for a Croatian zinfandel, found one along the Dalmatian coast. DNA tests revealed that crljenak and zinfandel were the same.
Here are some zins to try:
2014 Bent Creek Livermore Valley ($30). According to the winery’s website, the “brilliant scarlet color sparkles. The blend of red fruit and spice aromas are followed by intense Bing cherry flavors with a zing of cinnamon and cloves. Savor its long tart cherry finish.”
2016 Darcie Kent Livermore Valley ($45). The winery notes that this is a field-blend zinfandel with some petite syrah. “You could undoubtedly add to this long list of aromas: black plum, a spoonful of cream, cloves, rose petal, woodshop, cherry pie, and the scent of the dry, native grasses that grow between the vines. This highly acidic zinfandel, with clutching tannins and a silky body, has the structure to age further. Its youth shows in the fruit forwardness of its palate: seedy blackberries, bursting cherries, bay leaf, and bruised, perfume-y plum.”
2012 Ehrenberg Amador County, Shenandoah Valley ($29). This zin is typical of Ehrenberg Cellars. The website describes it as “a very traditional style Zinfandel. With a deep pepper and spice tones. It has earthy and mineral flavors with a hint of herbs. The longest lasting finish you could ask for.”
2015 Chouinard Lodi ($25). “Old vines and a new release join for a crisp and fruity treat with mellow tannins.”
2016 Rosa Fierro Bittersweet Zinfany, Livermore Valley ($32). “Craving a return to the Zin of yore, where you could taste every last summer ripe berry, bursting with brightness? One sip of this red raspberry, boysenberry and cinnamon-laced plum tart from Kalthoff Common will take you straight to the ol’ berry patch. Alluring earthy aromas and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg add complexity.”