It may come as a surprise, but Cabernet Sauvignon is not the original California grape. That distinction belongs to Zinfandel, which reigned supreme through the Golden State until Cab surpassed it in 1998.
Grown in most of California’s 58 counties, Zinfandel isn’t content playing second fiddle to Cabernet any longer. With protected pockets of old vines dotting Napa Valley and other parts of the state, California Zinfandel is gaining popularity among winemakers and wine drinkers alike.
Zinfandel in California
While Cabernet is synonymous with California, the state’s expansive vineyards and advantageous microclimates mean it can play host to many grape varietals with ease. Zinfandel is successful throughout the state as the third-leading grape planted there.
First planted around 1850, Zinfandel thrived in California until Prohibition took an axe to the American wine industry. Upon repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, many enterprising winemakers were immediately ready to go to market with their wines, including Zinfandel.
Today, those vines that were protected from the threat of Prohibition are prized for their low yields and high-quality fruit.
What Does California Zinfandel Taste Like?
Similar to its European cousin Primitivo, California Zinfandel is a fruit-forward, food-friendly grape with assertive red- and blackberry notes and peppery, slightly herbal qualities.
Though Zinfandel is most frequently associated with bold and jammy notes, many winemakers are experimenting with lighter, more nuanced styles to great effect. These wines may come from those sought-after old vines or may simply be handled with a lighter touch in the winery. These variations in style – high alcohol versus lower, smoky versus spicy, forceful versus gentle – make California Zinfandel a delight to explore.
Pair California Zinfandel with sticky Asian barbecue, roasted pork with cherry sauce, or vegetables from the grill.
What California Zinfandel Should I Drink?
Many California winemakers are adding Zinfandel to their repertoire with amazingly delicious results! Here are some of our favorites:
Robert Biale Vineyards
The Biale family continued growing Zinfandel throughout Prohibition, surreptitiously selling it alongside farm-fresh eggs, vegetables, and orchard fruit. Coded as “a black chicken” on the party telephone line to throw any teetotalers off the scent, jugs of Biale Zinfandel kept families happy and the Biale farm afloat through those dark pre-repeal days.
Today, the Biale family honors that heritage with their famed Black Chicken Zinfandel, a plush and aromatic wine with notes of raspberries, star anise, cherries, and cocoa.
Since 1962, Ridge Vineyards has elevated single-vineyard winemaking to a luxurious, singular experience. They make beautiful Zinfandel from multiple vineyard sites, each with its own personality, but we can’t help but reach for the 2020 Pagani Ranch Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley. Aged for fourteen months in new and used American oak, the bright acidity of the vintage is balanced by rounded plum, boysenberry, and tobacco notes.
An incredible representation of California old vine Zinfandel, Turley’s offerings can’t be missed. The vines from multiple vineyard sites are anywhere from 41 to a shocking 129 years old – surviving both Prohibition and phyloxera – and the quality is immediately apparent.
Try the balanced and elegant Turley Old Vines Zinfandel with a grilled steak or rustic barbecue. Notes of black cherries, white pepper, and juicy plums sing from the glass. It’s a beautifully bold yet delightfully balanced Zinfandel that’ll keep you coming back for more.
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