Long thought to be an all-American grape, Zinfandel's genes actually have been traced back to Croatia and Italy. No matter: California still is Zin's heart and soul—even if it suffers from a split personality. When skins are separated from the just-squeezed juice and the fermentation is stopped short of dryness, the wine becomes "White Zinfandel"—pink, light and soda-pop sweet. But left to ferment fully, this thick-skinned grape makes a full-throttle red.
Flavors and aromas: Zinfandel checks in at the rich, spicy end of the red wine flavor spectrum. Its fruit profile is often called brambly—rich in bush berries (raspberry, blackberry), with a rustic, peppery edge and sturdy tannins. High alcohol is common, contributing to Zin's full-bodied heft. Look for lower-priced bottlings if you favor brighter fruit, as well as more modest weight.
Shades of red Zin run from ruby to deep purple; the denser the color, the denser the wine. Prominent plantings:
Top Zin zones include Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lodi, and Amador; bottlings labeled California indicate that the grapes came from multiple sources. The ultra-serious Zinfandels come from especially old vines, which may be noted on the label. Pairing with food:
Perfect for red meat in all its guises, and backyard BBQs in particular. Works well with fried chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, and spicy fare (creole, chili) as well. Insider tip:
Zinfandel enjoys a fanatical following (a tasting in San Francisco recently drew 9,000), and California's offerings include plenty of cheeky names: Seven Deadly Zins, The Monster, Dancing Bull and The Kilt Lifter.