Red Wine, Wine

Zinfandel, California’s Underdog

Many of the most well known wine regions are known for specific grapes. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (among others) in Bordeaux, Syrah in the Northern Rhone, Gamay in Beaujolais. And that’s just France!

Even in the newer wine world there are some great grape-region combos. Malbec in Argentina, Carmenere in Chile, Shiraz in Australia, Chenin Blanc in South Africa.

And then there’s California.

California is a fantastic region, known for making excellent wines. They’ve taken almost any grape you can think of and proved that, not only can they grow it there, but they can make delicious wine out of those grapes too. California Cabernet is one of the leading expressions of that grape and their traditional method sparkling wine gives Champagne a run for its money.

Which is why it’s so sad to see one of their best grapes go overlooked.

Zinfandel’s long history

While at last November’s Wine Bloggers Conference I got to sit in on two sessions about Zinfandel in California and let me tell you, Zin winemakers there are super passionate. They have a deep knowledge of Zinfandel history.

For example – California winemakers have been making Zinfandel for upwards of 100 years. People who moved there for the gold rush also planted Zinfandel vines, and many of them were saved or hidden during America’s prohibition adventure.

Zinfandel winemakers in California (many of whom are members of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) are so aware and proud of this history, and who wouldn’t be? Hundred year old vines don’t just happen! They survive because of the care taken by generations of people who ensured the vines’ vitality and health. Kind of makes it heartbreaking to see those vines in danger of being dug up.

Zinfandel aroma wheel

An underdog grape

To be clear, I’m not talking about white zinfandel here. I’m talking about red Zin (proper Zin, if you ask me), which is big and bold and fruity and sometimes spicy and completely unique.

It’s also a complete underdog when it comes to California wine. At the session I attended last November the Zin winemakers spoke of their grape with what felt like a chip on their shoulder. It felt like they had their guard (maybe their metaphorical fists) up, waiting for someone to disparage this delicious grape that is their livelihood.

Even in my corner of the wine world Zin doesn’t get a lot of love, which I think is a big shame. It’s got a lot going for it! It’s fuller bodied but not as face-punchy as a Cab Sauv. It’s fruit but not jammy like a warm weather Shiraz. It doesn’t tend to have any of that underripe herbaceousness that can sometimes creep in. And it usually comes with some really great spiciness – think black pepper and Chinese five spice.

Tell me that doesn’t sound good!

California’s signature grape?

Despite their slight defensiveness, the Zin winemakers I’ve met also ooze passion for their grape. Many of them spoke with conviction about Zinfandel being California’s signature grape, and I believe them.

Sure, California makes great Chardonnay and Cabernets and Pinot Noirs, but many other regions also do that, and the regions that are most well known for those wines are…. Not California.

But what other region makes Zinfandel, let alone great Zinfandel, like California does?

You might be able to argue that Italy gives California a run for its money because of the similarities between Zin and Primitivo, but I think the grapes and climates are different enough that it’s not a fair comparison.

So here’s my official vote for Zinfandel as California’s signature grape.


Have I convinced you to pick up a bottle on Zinfandel yet? 🙂


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  • Reply Anne Louise Bannon February 28, 2018 at 12:42 am

    Without a doubt, California’s grape is zinfandel. It’s gotten a lot better over the past 10 to 20 years. Back in the late ’90s, they were big, jammy fruit bombs. Yuck. Jam belongs on toast, not in my glass. Nowadays, I’ve tasted quite a few that were not only restrained but had nice notes of pepper with a good balance of fruit.

    • Reply Meg February 28, 2018 at 12:01 pm

      I don’t mind a bit of jamminess if it’s balanced with some nice acidity, but I get what you mean. I think CA Zinfandel is having a bit of a renaissance and I’m all for it.

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