Jammy, soft, peppery, spicy, big, bold, intense, and instant gratification are all descriptors that have at one time or another been used to characterize Zinfandel. The quintessential barbecue wine, long claimed by California as the state’s heritage grape, Zin comes in a multitude of flavours and styles. When Prohibition kicked in 1920, Zin was actually the most widely planted varietal in the state.
First introduced to California by Italian immigrants during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, Zinfandel was long thought to have come from southern Italy’s Puglia region, where the genetically familial grape Primitivo makes its home. However, it was later discovered that Primitivo arrived in Italy after Zinfandel had already established itself in California. Further genetic studies led by UC Davis’ Carole Meredith (Dr. DNA as she is commonly referred to) ultimately showed that the origins of both Zin and Primitivo actually lie across the Adriatic Sea on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast in a grape known locally as Crljenak Kastelanski.
Regardless of where Zinfandel originated, there is no doubt that the Californians have not only embraced it as their own but are leaders in marketing the varietal. Australia, Canada, and even France are now producing Zin because of its success in the Sunshine State. At the sixth annual Zin on the River event in support of the Arthritis Society (held on the incomparable patio of Edmonton’s Fairmont Hotel MacDonald), I had the chance to taste many of the more than forty Zins that were showcased alongside roast pork, BBQ beef and an assortment of grilled flatbreads. Here are some of my favourites.
Pedroncelli Zinfandel 2000, Sonoma, ($19.99)
Aromas of spice and cherries. Fruit-forward; softly textured with flavours of cherry and wild berry and a touch of spice on the back palate. Excellent value.
Edmeades Zinfandel 2005, Mendocino, California ($35)
Vibrant, smooth, ripe, rich and supple, with layers of black cherry, wild berries, currant and spice, it flows across the palate with a silky-smooth texture and a pleasing, earthy aftertaste. Well-layered and constructed.
Cape Mentelle Zinfandel 2003, Margaret River, Australia ($38)
Elegant and stylish, with a rich palate of black cherry, raspberry, mocha, toasty oak and hazelnut flavours that are woven tightly together, finishing with a long, luxurious aftertaste. A Zin that leaves you longing for another glass.
Montevina Terra d’Oro SHR Field Blend Zinfandel 2004, Amador, California ($42)
A unique blend of 80% Zinfandel, 13% Petite Syrah and 7% Barbera grapes that are grown, harvested and fermented together. Excellent depth, with brawny and delicious black cherry, ripe plum, currants and spice and a lively mouthfeel. A little rough, but in a good, brambly, chewy sort of way. Pair with big red meat or if you just want something big and powerful on its own.
Renwood Old Vines Zinfandel 2003, Amador, California ($45)
Focused, ripe, peppery, intense and rich with expressive black raspberry, dark plums and black pepper. Toasty oak aromas and jammy wild fruit and spice flavours lead to zesty tannins on the finish.
Frog’s Leap Zinfandel 2005, Napa, ($52)
Dark, rich and complex, with splendid plum, black cherry and raspberry flavours that expand to reveal greater depth and concentration. Has a satisfying, full aftertaste with firm tannins.
Hendry Block 24 Primitivo 2005, Napa, ($59)
Rich, intense and multi-layered, wrapped up in toasty, smoky oak resulting in a complex and compelling wine, full of ripe cherry, plum and dark berries. Finishes with firm tannins and a long finish with a wealth of flavour.
Rosenblum Rockpile Zinfandel 2005, Dry Creek Valley, California ($62)
Rambunctious, rugged, rich and vibrant. Possesses a delicious core of ripe black cherry, currant, raspberry, dark chocolate, spice, anise and plum, finishing with depth and ripe, firm tannins. Intense and lively. Think burgers and ribs.