Zinfandel will happily grace a Thanksgiving table, but that's by no means the sum total of its talents as a match for food. Pasta and risotto, vegetarian fare, mildly spicy dishes - Zinfandel laps them all up with ease. Next to its more sophisticated, Napa Valley-orientated counterparts, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Zinfandel is an underrated, unpretentious shorts-and-T-shirt grape variety - hence, ironically, its versatility. With no European pedigree, Zinfandel has the advantage over the more obvious classic styles in that it is not stuck in a rut of food and wine cliches or expectations.
It can reach dizzying alcoholic heights, but because it's not a monstrously tannic grape variety, most Zinfandel is best drunk in its first two to five years of life, when its range of red and sometimes black fruit characters retain their youthful, raspberry or black-cherry-like juiciness and mouthwateringly peppery intensity. "I have yet to see the red wine of any variety I would prefer to the best samples of Zinfandel," wrote George Hussman back in 1888. "Unfortunately these best samples are like angels' visits, few and far between."
No one knows exactly how Zinfandel came to be planted in California. It is genetically the same grape as the Primitivo from Italy's Salento peninsula, but records of its existence in California in 1830 predate mention of it in Italy. So while the Italians claim that it's a native of southern Italy, whence it upped sticks to the West Coast, Californians proudly maintain that it might just as well have gone the other way - or possibly even come from a third, unknown, source.
Whatever the truth about its origins, it has taken Zinfandel an inordinately long time to emerge, blinking from obscurity, into the California limelight. Echoing the story of Australia's Shiraz and South Africa's Pinotage, Zinfandel was a grape equally without honour in its own land for decades. With its tendency to inconsistent ripening, it is a relatively difficult grape to handle in the vineyard and cellar. A generation ago, it was made as a heart-stoppingly heady red in the old-fashioned Italian style and aged, for the most part, in big old casks.
In the late 1960s, a handful of pioneers such as Ridge's Paul Draper discovered the potential of Zinfandel made from old vines. "Here was a grape," said Draper in a recent interview, "which could deliver the intensity, concentration and complexity of great Cabernet." A new, finer style of wine emerged, based on a conscious attempt to climinate the more rustic elements, and the addition of extra polish by maturing the wine in small new oak barrels.
Given its relatively low profile as a quality grape variety, it's perhaps a little surprising that Zinfandel is California's most widely planted grape variety with 46,588 acres (up 16,000 acres from 20 years ago) compared with Cabernet Sauvignon's 40,457 acres and Merlot's 32,883.
This explosion was fuelled by the marketing dream of Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home winery. Like Paul Draper, Trinchero, discovered Zinfandel a while back, but his contribution was to fuel a demand for White Zinfandel, or California Blush, a light, often off-dry rose, whose blandness tickled the unsophisticated fancy of a Coca-Cola-loving nation back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The figures speak for themselves. By 1991, White Zin, as it has become known, sold 15 million cases compared with fewer than a million of red Zinfandel.
Today, the Blush tide has thankfully receded, allowing the real thing to stand up and be counted as a serious - but not too serious - California red. Not surprisingly for a wine with no preconceived role model, styles - and prices - vary enormously, from relatively simple and affordable to the more complex, concentrated style often but not always, made from low-yielding old vines. Most California Zinfandel comes from the Lodi area of the San Joaquin Valley. But the best Zinfandels come from Sonoma County's Dry Creek, Alexander, Sonoma and Russian River Valleys, from Paso Robles in the Central Coast region south of San Francisco, and the hillsides of Napa Valley.
Zinfandels are still relatively few and far between in the UK, partly because the Americans keep the best for themselves, and partly, perhaps, because the style is simply not as well known or appreciated in this country as it should be - yet. Price, as in the case of most premium California wines, is a factor, but with F & J Gallo pushing hard, and California's bumper harvest likely to concentrate producers' minds on exporting, prices may ease enough to lure more wine drinkers into the Zinfandel fold. In which case, it may just become a little less rare than angels' visits.
Zinfandels to look out for
1996 Lee Jones Ranch Zinfandel, pounds 4.99, Victoria Wine. Simple, juicily cherryish red with undertones of rhubarb and mint, made by Victoria Wine's former technical manager, Hugh Suter, Master of Wine.
1994 Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel, on special offer at pounds 6.49 (normally pounds 6.99), Majestic. A bright, youthful Zinfandel with an easy-drinking suppleness and plenty of appealing strawberry and pepper fruit flavours.
1994 Beringer North Coast Zinfandel, pounds 6.99, Majestic. In rather more serious mode with a veneer of spicy oak, firm tannic backbone and intense berry fruit flavours.
Marietta Cellars Old Vine Lot Number Twenty, pounds 7.49, Oddbins. Replicating the old Geyserville (Sonoma) field blend of Zinfandel with dollops of Petite Sirah, Carignane and Gamay, this is an aromatic blend with concentrated, spicy, brambly fruit flavours.
1995 Franciscan Oakville Estate Napa Zinfandel, pounds 9.99, Oddbins. Spicy pepper aromas and raspberry and blackberry fruit flavours are underscored by polished vanilla oakiness.
1995 Frog's Leap Zinfandel, pounds 13.88 Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (01206 764446). One of California's most elegant styles, this is an aromatic, smooth-textured wine with real clarity of pure Zinfandel spiciness.
1995 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, pounds 17.50, Adnams, Southwold (01502727220), Waitrose Direct (0800 413331). A blend of mostly Zinfandel with a touch of Petite Sirah and Carignane, this benchmark California Zin is a subtly oaked, pepper-spicy pudding of damson and mulberry.
White of the week
1996 Basedow Semillon, Barossa Valley, pounds 6.99, Safeway, 125 stores.
An attractive alternative to Chardonnay. The Semillon grape here, from South Australia's Eden and Barossa Valleys, has been partially fermented in small American oak barrels and left on its lees for five months, resulting in a subtle, eucalyptus-like smokiness and fine textured lemon meringue pie and beeswaxy fruitiness. I said it was distinctive.
Red of the week
1995 Teuzzo Chianti Classico, Cecchi, pounds 6.75, Sainsbury's, 160 stores.
Predominantly made from the Sangioveses grape, this is a youthful, modern Tuscan rosso from Chianti's Classico heartland with fine ruby colour and bright, lip-smacking fruit whose savoury richness is rounded out with an extra boost of vanilla-like spiciness from its 12-month stay in small French oak barrels. The nifty packaging adds a dash of Italian brio..Reuse content