Liquids: Red Zinfandel

Few grapes in the history of winemaking have drawn more raised eyebrows than zinfandel, an exotic black variety whose name is odd given the European accents on most grapes we know and love, and whose provenance is as circuitously mind-boggling as a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Though zinfandel’s roots can now be traced back to Europe (surprise!—but read on), it’s cultivated predominantly in California, where it comes in myriad shades and styles—all of them uniquely American.

So what better wine to celebrate with this Fourth of July? Zinfandel—we’re talking specifically about red zin here—possesses all the things we love about red wine (earthiness, heft, mouth-watering fruit, food-loving tannins—the works) with the added kick of spiciness, specifically a peppery zip that seems to explode on the palate. It’s the ultimate barbecue wine, pairing with everything from hamburgers to sirloin steaks.

Couldn’t cabernet or merlot come to the cookout, too? Not really. Cabernet is too austere for down-home American fare, and merlot, in addition to being utterly out of fashion thanks to the movie Sideways, is too tutti-frutti to handle the char of grilled foods. Simply put, American food demands an American wine, and there is only one: zinfandel. (Cue fireworks display.)

But zinfandel isn’t really American—or is it? Viticulture pioneer Agoston Haraszthy was thought to have brought zinfandel to California from his native Hungary in the mid 1800s, until, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, historian Charles Sullivan unearthed the truth, or at least part of it. According to Sullivan, the variety was well known on the East Coast long before Haraszthy arrived in California in 1849. Indeed, “zinfindal” was exhibited at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Horticultural Hall as early as 1834.

The problem with the grape’s identity, says Oxford, is that “because Zinfandel has no French connection, it has escaped the detailed scrutiny of the world’s ampelographic centre in Montpellier and its European origins rested on local hypothesis . . . until the application of DNA ‘fingerprinting’ to vines in the early 1990s.”

DNA? I knew that would get your attention. Yup, the same techniques that are today routinely used to clear or condemn alleged criminals were employed to try to figure out just where the heck zinfandel—the bastard of the wine world—came from. The findings were both sensational and immediately contested. Early results concluded that zinfandel is the same as the primitivo grape of southern Italy.

But not so fast.

Italian researchers pointed out that primitivo had been cultivated in their country for only 150 to 250 years. And they weren’t sure how it had arrived there. So another researcher began to look at a similar grape variety, called plavac mali, that grew across the Adriatic in Croatia.

But not so fast.

In 1998, prominent California grapevine geneticist Carole Meredith, who helped discover the parentage of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and syrah, revealed that plavac mali was not a parent of zinfandel but in fact a son. Then a Croatian scientist told Meredith about a grape called crljenak kastelanski (pronounced tsurl-YEN-ahk kastel-AHN-ski). Meredith tested the grapes and on December 18, 2001, confirmed that crljenak and zinfandel were the same variety. Finally zinfandel’s heritage was established. And no, I’m not going to say, “Not so fast.”

What I will say is that regardless of where the grape is from, American zinfandel is different from what you find across the pond. In contrast to the rest of our winemaking tradition, which has always tipped its hat to Europe, we Americans flipped Europe the bird. We developed our own style, our own sensibility. In short, we developed a wine we could be proud of.

While it’s tempting to wax revolutionary on the founding of a great American style, I have to remind you that what we’ve done to zinfandel hasn’t always been so noble. For much of the 20th century, it served as the backbone for fruity jug wines. Then, in the 1980s, our demand for white wine over red saw the birth of “white zinfandel,” a wine I like to call the Frankenstein of wines because it’s so clumsily assembled and blatantly unnatural. I could go on about the sins of white zins, but this is supposed to be an upbeat tribute to red zinfandels.

Which is easy, since now is the perfect time to sample them. The 2002 vintage, which is still sharing shelf space with the newly arriving 2003s, is considered one of the best ever for California zinfandels. The finest of these display zesty, mouth-watering fruit flavors—think wild raspberries, black cherries, and juicy plums with the touch of black pepper that is a zinfandel signature. All of which sounds perfect with just about anything cooked over an open fire come Independence Day. Or any day, for that matter, when you’re thirsty for a wine that doesn’t pander to European styles but demonstrates boisterous, unrepentant dynamism and power coupled with a spicy edge.

Come to think of it, that sounds just like us Yanks.