Zinfandel — A Guide to the Basics

Though its origins go back to Croatia, Zinfandel finds its fullest, most exuberant expression in the United States.

A couple toasting with zinfandel wine
Photo: Inside Creative House / Getty Images

Zinfandel is the most American of grapes. Sure, there are other varieties of Vitis vinifera that have been here longer (Mission, for example), and there are plenty of native vines (we're looking at you, Norton and Catawba!). But perhaps more than any other grape variety, Zinfandel reaches its apex in the United States, and nowhere does that happen more dramatically than in California, where from Contra Costa and Sonoma to Paso Robles, Amador County, and beyond, Zin, as it's often affectionately known, thrives with a serious sense of drama and deliciousness.

What is Zinfandel Wine?

Zinfandel is a red wine produced from the grape variety of the same name. Because it reaches its peak of quality and expressiveness in the United States, it is almost always labeled with the name of that grape on the bottle. Exceptions can be found when it's blended (and some sort of proprietary name is used instead), but when a particular wine is crafted entirely from Zinfandel, or from a blend that's at least 75% Zin, the name of the variety will be emblazoned on the label. The overwhelming majority of Zinfandel wines are red, dry, and still, though rosé and sweet late-harvest examples can certainly be found, and even, once in a while, sparkling. But they are exceptions rather than examples of the rule. White Zinfandel is a completely different wine (similar to a rosé), and for the purposes of this guide, it will not be considered.

Where Does Zinfandel Wine Come From?

The vast majority of Zinfandel on the market comes from the United States, and California in particular. Great ones are produced in Paso Robles and along the Central Coast, though classic producers like Ridge, for example, make collectable bottlings like the Pagani Ranch Zinfandel from the Sonoma Valley and the East Bench Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley. Other standout Sonoma County bottlings from Ridge include the excellent Boatman Zin (from Alexander Valley) and Ponzo Zin (from Russian River Valley), among others. They also make a collectible Zinfandel from the Monte Bello Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Napa Valley is also the source of standout examples, as is Amador County and Contra Costa, where Joel Peterson, formerly of Ravenswood and now of Once and Future, crafts excellent expressions.

In Italy, the same grape is known as Primitivo, and while it tends to lack the same effusive blue and black fruit and spice there as it has in California, Primitivo from Puglia (the proverbial heel of the Italian boot) is fantastic in its own right, and worth drinking often. It still boasts excellent ripe fruit, spice, and often savory undertones.

According to the trade group ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) it's likely that Zinfandel came from Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, where it was known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. By the 1820s, it had made its way to the United States.

Why Should You Drink Zinfandel Wine?

Zinfandel is to American wine as jazz is to American music: The taproot to which so much else traces its history and development. So many other grape varieties are also grown and produced with aplomb here, but they all generally have foreign benchmarks against which they've historically been judged and measured. Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is undoubtedly among the very best in the world, but so are examples from the Left Bank of Bordeaux. Willamette Valley and Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs reach stratospheric heights, but so, too, do the great reds of Burgundy. Yet with Zinfandel, California is the benchmark. Either on its own or blended with its frequent partner Petit Sirah (and others), Zin is a far more complex, layered world than it often gets credit for.

As far as Zinfandel goes in the glass, one sip and it becomes immediately clear why you should drink Zinfandel: It is generous, often ripe, and with plenty of spice throughout. It does well in warmer temperatures, develops enough sugar to produce wine of often serious power and richness, and is incredibly food-friendly, especially alongside spicy or sauce-slathered grilled or barbecued meats.

What Does Zinfandel Taste Like?

Zinfandel is typically full of dark fruit: Plums, blackberries, and blueberries are frequent tasting notes, though wild strawberries and cherries are also often discerned. That fruit is famously counterbalanced with plenty of spice, with everything from peppercorn to star anise. If the Zinfandel has been aged in new oak, cinnamon, clove, caramel, vanilla, and other classic baking spices join the proverbial party. Many top producers like Joel Peterson, who arguably did more than anyone to raise the profile of American Zinfandel beginning back in the 1980s, have often worked with individual sites to coax out the specific character of that particular land for single-vineyard bottlings, in addition to more appellation- or region-wide examples. The aforementioned Ridge does the same thing. Dave Phinney, who created the widely popular wine, The Prisoner (which is heavily reliant on Zinfandel), and now crafts Eight Years in the Desert (another hedonistic Zinfandel), is a proponent of a riper, darker, higher-alcohol style of Zin that has earned countless fans and a broad base of passionate consumers.

Given their rich character and overt power, many Zinfandels work well not just with the previously mentioned grilled and barbecued meats, but also with creamy and salty cheeses, and even desserts like cheesecake and higher-cacao chocolate. Plus, late-harvest Zin with a big bowl of chocolate peanut-butter mousse is like the best grown-up PB&J you'll ever have!

Given its often higher alcohol, it's best to serve Zinfandel slightly cooler than room temperature: 20 minutes in the refrigerator will work wonders. Serving it too warm will highlight the alcohol, which will run the risk of overwhelming the other nuances of the wine.

Five Great Zinfandel Wines

There are countless great Zinfandel wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Zinfandel has to offer.

Cantine Due Palme

From one of the bigger Primitivo producers in Puglia, the 2019 San Gaetano Primitivo di Manduria shows why this southeastern part of Italy is such a hotspot (literally and figuratively — Puglia is hot in the summer!) for the variety. An earthy, leathery, dried-oregano character informs the purple fruit, hoisin sauce, tamarind paste, and star anise in this wine that calls out for barbecued or braised meat.

Elyse Winery

Under highly regarded winemaker Russell Bevan, Elyse crafts a range of reds and whites. Their St. Peter's Church Zinfandel is made from century-old Zin vines that are, as the name implies, owned by the church. It's terrific: Ripe and rich, with cascading flavors of licorice-scented kirsch, chocolate ganache, and toasty vanilla.

Once and Future Wine Company

From Zinfandel master Joel Peterson comes this project that, as his web site puts it, "is a return to the original vision I had for Ravenswood so many years ago. A project that specializes in wines from special vineyards made with a sensitivity to place and in a style that I personally love and believe in." The wines are excellent, and the single vineyard Zins are an object lesson in how terroir helps shape great wine.

Ridge Vineyards

Ridge is a mainstay of serious collections and top wine lists across the country, and the 2020 East Bench Zinfandel exemplifies why: It's a more restrained style than most Zins tend to be, but every bit as expressive of its origins, layered, and utterly delicious with gobs of purple fruit, plums, violets, and serious structure, a seam of mineral running down the middle.

Turley Wine Cellars

One of the legends of California wine, Turley is well-known for their exuberant, often age-worthy wines, and the 2018 Kirschenmann Vineyard Zinfandel, from Lodi, is a great, vibrant example: Wild strawberries and chocolate-enrobed cherries dance with woodsy spices, orange oils, and bergamot.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles