By Celia Strong
“Forgive me for I have Zinned.” This clever phrase shows up on T-shirts and other souvenirs sold where Zinfandel wines are made. For us, it just means we are going to learn about a new red Zinfandel because red Zins can be a great choice for Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners. Thanksgiving is particularly well suited to these wines because they are a uniquely American wine, maybe, just like Thanksgiving is our unique holiday.
Zinfandel is a red variety that is planted in about 10 percent of California vineyards. It is used to make two different types of wine — a robust red and a sweet-ish style blush (pink) wine. It can be hard to believe that one grape does both. The exact flavors and textures, and even alcohol level, of any particular Zinfandel wine, red ones only here, depends a lot on where the grapes are grown. From cooler areas, they show more red fruit flavors. From warmer climates, the wines so more black fruit flavors and spicyness.
The history of Zinfandel has been a difficult to pinpoint where it came from and when it developed. And, it seems to have several names. There is archaeological evidence that “vitis vinifera” vines existed in 6,000 BC in the Caucasus region, an area between Europe and Asia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. From here, vine growing spread to the Mediterranean and Europe, and winemaking, which obviously follows vine growing, too. Croatia is thought to have had indigenous grapes, for longer than anywhere else, several of them related somehow to our current Zinfandel. All of these old varieties were wiped out by phylloxera in the second half of the 19th century. What was left were nine vines, discovered in 2001, on the Dalmatian coast, one of the “parents” for Zinfandel as we know it today.
“Primitivo” is another name closely tied to Zinfandel. This is an Italian name that first appeared in an Italian publication in the 1870’s. Because the “Primitvo” name showed up for the first time 40 years after the “Zinfandel” name was first used, it was thought for a while that Primitivo came to Italy from United States vineyards. Finding the nine vines in Croatia, though, meant adjusting this theory. Now it is thought that Primitvo was introduced into Italy in the 18th century. The name “Primativo” is related to the Italian words for early or first. The variety ripens early.
Zinfandel’s journey to the United States, and California in particular, was long and circuitous. The Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria, probably got their hands on some vines from Croatia when the Habsburg Monarchy ruled over Croatia. A Long Island, N.Y., horticulturist, George Gibbs, received shipments of grape vines from Schönbrunn and other European sources, between 1820 and 1829. “Black Zinfandel of Hungary” may have been one of the grapes that went to Long Island. Possibly, the name “Zinfandel” at this time was derived from the word “tzinifándli,” a Hungarian name for another grape. Anyhow, in 1830, Gibbs traveled to Boston and soon Samuel Perkins of Boston was selling “zendendal.” A similar variety, Black St. Peters, was also supplied by Gibbs, but it was said to have come from England where many vines had “St. Peters” in their names. The Black St. Peters arrived in California in the 1850’s, and was called Zinfandel in the 1870’s.
The California Gold Rush, in the 1850’s, brought many people from across the country. The first California Zinfandel wine may have been made by Joseph W. Osborne. He had planted grapes in Napa in his Oak Knoll vineyard. In 1857, Osborne’s Zinfandel wine was highly praised and plantings of the grape spread rapidly. At the end of the 19th century, it was the most planted variety in California. It is some of these vines, that weren’t torn out during Prohibition, that are now making highly valued Old Vine Zinfandel wines.
After Prohibition, and the Depression, the California wine industry was extremely weak. Zinfandel became obscure, used, if at all, for fortified wines. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that reports of a “fascinating California grape” started to circulate. Zinfandel was described as “California’s own red grape.” But, science reared its head and in 1967, a University of California at Davis professor, Austin Goheen, visited Italy and noticed how closely Primitivo wines resembled Zinfandel wines. In 1968, Primitivo was brought to California, and the two grapes were declared identical in 1972. In 1975, a PhD student, Wade Wolfe, showed that the two varieties had identical isozyme fingerprints. In 1976, it was suggested to Goheen that Primitivo was the Croatian variety “Plavic Mali.” By 1982, Goheen had proven they were similar but not identical. Some Croatians, though, still wanted to believe that Plavic Mali was the same as Zinfandel. In 1991, some Croatian-born California winemakers, including Mike Grgich, formed ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) to promote Zinfandel wines and to fund scientific research on it.
Professor Carole Meredith went to Croatia and collected 150 samples of Plavic Mali. In 1993, Meredith used DNA fingerprinting to confirm Primtivo and Zinfandel were clones of the same variety. By 1998, Meredith had established that Primitivo/Zinfandel was actually one of the parents of Plavic Mali. Finally, in 2001, when the nine vines were found, and tests were run, it was found that Crljenak Kaštelanski is Primitivo/Zinfandel in its original home.
All of which gets us to the questions “what’s in our bottles and what’s on their labels?” Naturally, laws are not as quick to change as they might be. As of 1999, the European Union has recognized Zinfandel as a synonym for Primitivo. Italian Primitivos can be labeled Zinfandel for sale in the United States or any other country that accepts EU label laws, including the U.S. In 2007, our Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau listed both Zinfandel and Primitivo as approved grapes for American wines. But, not that they are synonyms. In 2002, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms proposed that the two names be recognized as synonyms.
Our wine this week is Kenwood Jack London Zinfandel from Sonoma Mountain. Kenwood Vineyards was established in 1970 on the site of the Pagani Brothers Winery that dated back to 1906. Kenwood owns almost 25 acres plus sources grapes from many other growers, most of them sustainably grown or organically grown. They do make several levels of wines, the Jack London being particularly good. These grapes come from the Sonoma Mountain AVA, which has red volcanic soil that makes for exceptionally fruity wines. This wine has raspberry and fig flavors and vanilla and white pepper notes. Good tannins, but smooth and elegant in your mouth and a long, lovely, lingering finish. It is aged 19 months in French and American oak barrels and is 94 percent Zinfandel with 6 percent Syrah.
Why is Jack London’s name attached to this wine? Because the author once lived on Sonoma Mountain, on the land where some of these grapes actually grow. For years, too, his grandson lived in Jack’s old house on the mountain surrounded by Kenwood vines. Maybe, instead of saying we’re going to Zin, we should be saying “The Call of the Wild” is in our glasses. For $20.99 at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island. Enjoy.