September is California Wine Month, and one of California’s most distinguished wines is Zinfandel.
Zin, as it’s called for short, is a black-skinned wine grape (photo #5) that produces a robust, bold and spicy red wine that can stand up to the most robust and rich foods.
While the Zinfandel grape is only grown in some 10% percent of California vineyards, one of the Zins, made by Ridge Vineyards near Santa Cruz, California, is known the world over.
Zinfandel grapes have a high sugar content, that enables the wine to be fermented into levels of alcohol exceeding 15%.
The taste of the Zin depends on the ripeness of the grapes from which it is made and the microclimate in which it is grown.
It was created when the fermentation of a vat of Zinfandel, a natural process, suddenly stopped in the middle. The interim stage where it stopped showed wine with a pink shade.
Winemaker Bob Trinchero tasted it, and found it to be like a semi-sweet rosé.
He named the blush-style (i.e. pinkish) wine White Zinfandel, and it subsequently had six times the sales of his Red Zinfandel. The California blush wine craze was on!
But, on to the good stuff: Ridge Zinfandel, a collector’s wine, made to age. (And when “Zinfandel” is mentioned, it refers to the red wine.)
The best Zinfandel, hands down, is produced by Ridge Vineyards, headquartered in Cupertino, California, which has been producing Zinfandel since 1964.
The vineyard focuses on single-vineyard bottlings, with each bottling displaying the unique qualities of its terroir*.
The best-known of these are Geyserville, Monte Bello (and, one might say, the producers of the best, most full-bodied of the Ridge Zins).
Today, Ridge has some 20 different vineyards growing Zinfandel. Each vineyard’s harvest goes into a single bottling with that vineyard’s name.
You can see all the vineyards on the company website.
In addition to Zin, the vineyard produces an acclaimed Cabernet Sauvignon; and in small quantities, Carignane, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Syrah. Its one white wine, Chardonnay, is made in limited amounts.
Ridge produces wine at two winery locations in northern California.
While Ridge pairs with the best steak, it also pairs with a burger. And with turkey, it’s a winner (we always have a bottle on Thansgiving).
Zinfandel pairs with food that demand full- or medium-body red wines. Note that different brands of Zin are light, medium or full-bodied. Most of the Ridge wines are full-bodied.
Based on archaeological studies, domestication of the wild grape vine, Vitis vinifera, occurred around 6000 B.C.E. in the southern Caucasus. A mountainous region at the intersection of Europe and Asia, it stretches between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
Shortly thereafter, winemaking commenced and grape cultivation spread to the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. Different grape varieties mutated or were bred. Zinfandel’s progenitor seems to have come from Croatia.
Croatia once had several indigenous varieties related to Zinfandel, which formed the basis of its commercial wine industry in the 19th century. Its diversity suggests that the grapes have been grown in Croatia longer than anywhere else.
Many of the vines of Europe were wiped out in the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century. Today just nine vines of locally-known “Crljenak Kaštelanski” remain, discovered in 2001 on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
 Ridge Geyserville, one of the top three Ridge Zins, with roast duck.
DNA analysis has revealed that Zinfandel is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grapes Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag, as well as to the Primitivo grape variety grown in Apulia region of Italy (the “heel”), where it was introduced in the 18th century. [Source]
The grape found its way to the U.S. in the mid-19th century. George Gibbs, a horticulturist on Long Island, received shipments of grapes from Europe between 1820 and 1829.
Gibbs visited Boston in 1830, and Samuel Perkins of that city began selling “Zenfendal” soon afterward.
In 1830, Gibbs also supplied Prince with “Black St. Peters,” a similar variety that may have come from England, where many vines have “St. Peters” in their names. Little is known about this vine, except that the Black St. Peters that arrived in California in the 1850s was the same as what became known as Zinfandel by the 1870s.
*Terroir, pronounced tur-WAH, is a French agricultural term referring to the unique set of environmental factors in a specific habitat that affect a crop’s qualities. It includes climate, elevation, proximity to a body of water, slant of the land, soil type and amount of sun. These environmental characteristics gives the wine (or other agricultural product) its character.