Oh the joys of Minnesota. Tons of snow people, that's all you need to know. And because it's cold as balls out we're gonna talk about a wine for such times to warm the soul. Zinfandel to the rescue.
Varietal Overview: Zinfandel
History and Cultivation
When us wine-lovers hear Zinfandel, we think of good old home-grown American wine, particularly out of California. However, Zinfandel is no rookie to the world of wine. In fact, evidence places the oldest known mention of Zinfandel grapes to around 6000 BC! Archaeological evidence links these ancient vines to the Caucasus region, situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea near modern day Armenia, Georgia, and Russia. Genetic testing at the University of California-Davis recently found that Zinfandel grapes are actually genetically identical to the Primitivo variety, which is traditionally grown in the south of Italy. Nowadays, Primitivo has become synonymous with Zinfandel, and can therefore be thought of the Old World production of wine from the same grapes. Further testing showed that the modern Zinfandel grape is actually genetically similar to other red varietals grown in Croatia. In fact, both Zinfandel and Primitivo were found to be genetic clones of the Croatian grape, Crljenak. Therefore, Zinfandel’s ancient past is somewhat peculiar in that genetic relatedness has been found in grapes which are grown in many regions throughout Europe. Historians proposed, therefore, that the varietal is originally indigenous to the Caucasus region, and only spread throughout the ancient world after the first winemaking was introduced shortly after 6000 BC.
How was Zinfandel introduced into the United States (where, afterwards, many would long believe it was an “American Variety”)? Historians proposed that Zinfandel vine cuttings that were Croatian in origin were brought over to California during the gold rush in the 19th century and were then cultivated.
Due to the climate diversity in the regions where Zinfandel is/was grown, It is no wonder that these vines are hearty and formidable. However, the fruit of these vines is somewhat picky, in that it is best that grapes be grown in climates that are warm but not overly hot, since the fruit has a tendency to shrivel up in extreme heat. This is due, in large part, to the thin skins of these grapes, which allow water to easily evaporate out during hot, dry weather. They tend to ripen somewhat unevenly, which can be difficult for viticulturalists and winemakers, but in general tend to be an early-ripening varietal. In addition, these grapes tend to grow in large, clustered bunches which sometimes can make it difficult to determine if some grapes in the bunch are over-ripe or under-ripe.
Tasting Profile and Pairings
Old World production of Zinfandel typically refers to the (differently labelled) identical Italian grape varietal Primitivo, which produces dark, inky wines which are high in tannins and alcohol. Oak aging is typically used to add body to the wine and stabilize the deep color of the product. These wines are typically grown in a coastal region at the “heel” of Italy known as Apulia, and tend to be juicy yet not over-ripe, fuller bodied, with a slightly sweet finish. This sweetness and juiciness makes sense and can be used to distinguish this Old World Italian version of Zinfandel, as the temperature in Apulia remains warm year-round, and therefore is conducive to growing lush, rich grapes which produce jammy wines. Fruit notes tend to include blackberry, cherry, and strawberry, among others. Often times, a later harvest can be used to produce sweeter dessert wines from these same grapes. When paired with food, it is best to choose a dish with a good degree of richness, such as a grilled steak with balsamic glaze, eggplant parmesan, or a moderately-spiced curry dish which complements the fruity nature of the wine.
American (New World) Zinfandel typically is slightly lighter in body than the Italian version which tends to have a slightly earthier flavor, but is by no means lacking in body and character. As is done in Italy, winemakers tend to harvest these grapes on the early side and use oak-aging, but can also use a later harvest to produce sweeter dessert wines. Alcohol tends to be fairly high in American Zin, as are tannins, giving a dry wine, but a wine that still has plenty of fruit. Due to the higher alcohol content and tannins in both Old and New World Zinfandel/Primitivo, it is best not to pair these wines with overly hot spicy foods. As opposed to the Old World production of Primitivo, terroir variations tend to give Zinfandel a slightly different flavor and fruit composition, with a hint of black pepper and licorice complementing fruit notes of blueberry, plum, boysenberry, and cherry. New World Zinfandel will also pair well with rich meat dishes such as glazed ham, steak, or even pulled chicken sandwiches on a cold winter day.
Try this Recipe with a Classic California Zinfandel
Pulled Chicken Sandwiches
2 cups cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons dry mustard
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
One 3 1/2-pound rotisserie chicken
4 hamburger buns, split
In a medium saucepan, combine the cider vinegar with the water, white wine, vegetable oil, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, sweet paprika, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper and boil over high heat until reduced to 1 1/4 cups, about 15 minutes. Remove the warm vinegar sauce from the heat. Meanwhile, remove all of the meat from the chicken and shred it. Discard the skin. Add the chicken to the warm vinegar sauce and heat through, stirring gently. Pile the pulled chicken on the buns and drizzle with extra vinegar sauce.