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Original Zin

Getting to grips with the enigmatic grape

Bold, spicy and all-American? Or over-alcoholic, overblown and over here? Louis Villard enlists the help of a team of sommeliers, and takes advice from San Franciscans, to get to the bottom of the Zinfandel enigma


Zinfandel spent years as the bastard orphan grape from the Old World, with no known home and uncertain origins. We now know it’s genetically linked to an ancient Croatian grape, the snappily entitled Crljenak Kaštelanski. It is also believed that the Italian Primitivo grape (which is the same grape as Zinfandel) was probably exported to the US.

In California, the wine is hugely popular among restaurant consumers – there is even a non-profit organisation dedicated to the grape’s producers and followers. The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (aka ZAP) holds regular consumer tastings, reaching tens of thousands over a weekend.

So why, given its popularity Stateside – both cult and mainstream – does the grape not do so well here in England? Sommeliers might quite like its glamorous orphan origins, which obviously make a great story, but is it in their top five wines to suggest with food? No. And even if they do suggest it, do consumers try these unfamiliar wines that are perceived as high octane, generally inferior to European varieties, and perhaps not the easiest of food matches?

In search of answers, I headed to San Francisco – where else? Surely, with a home team advantage, the wine pros of California would be able to suggest something interesting to match with the grape.

MANY MATCHES

Trawling the streets of San Francisco I hit the top end restaurants on Pine and worked my way through to the gritty 24-hour corner cafes in the much-avoided slums of the Tenderloin. After chatting with wine-bar managers, sommeliers and high-profile wine directors in San Francisco, I discovered they are matching Zinfandel with an array of different plates. The normal red meat and BBQ were all mentioned but so were the likes of curry-spiced scallop risotto, tuna steak, bass with broccoli Romanesco, spicy sausages such as Merguez, even a spicy chilli omelette.

So, given its appeal Stateside, why is the UK consumer still wary? One of the main issues with Zinfandel is the association with its credibility-free blush cousin. This is understandable, but also ironic, because if white Zinfandel had not been such a hit in the early 80s most of today’s Zin plantings would have been grubbed up and forgotten by now. So, thank-you white Zin for all of your confected, pink, vine-saving attributes, but no thanks for creating the perception that the wine tastes like candyfloss in a bottle.

Because of the all-pervasive influence of white Zin, consumers can be surprised to see ‘proper’ red Zinfandel from £30 high up on a wine list. There is also a lack of public understanding that Zinfandel can make a food-friendly red wine and not necessarily be a huge blockbuster.

John Olney, head winemaker at Ridge Lytton Springs, believes (and I am sure most will agree) that the higher alcohol Zins in line-ups aren’t always the best examples of the grape. But they might get the better scores due to the obvious in-your-face style. However, he does think the blockbuster wines are in decline.

SUBTLE STYLE

Olney’s view of a more subtle trend is echoed here in the UK. While trying Zins at this year’s California tasting, Andrea Bricarello, head sommelier at Galvin La Chapelle and Café Deluxe, found that subtle versions were more common and a good surprise to his taste buds.

But why go with Zinfandel in the first place? In a word: diversity. If you accept that it is important to have a wine list that is representative of the entire wine world, then Zinfandel is a worthy member of this club. The grape is synonymous with California; it offers a unique style not available from other grapes. But above all, and as proven in our tasting (see over), Zinfandel can be matched with foods that other wines can’t touch.

Don’t believe me? Well, here’s the challenge we set out. Imbibe sent a collection of Zins to five different sommeliers, together with suggested food pairings hot from their expert counterparts in California – who, don’t forget, really ‘get’ Zin.

Like a Friday night fight of sorts, we put all the wine and food in a ring to slug it out, hoping to find the best matches. As we hoped, some offbeat pairings worked, others did not. The most interesting by far were foods made with Indian spices (cardamom, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon).

As you will see, the sommeliers tended to like this combination of fragrant and spicy food with a few different types of Zin. Personally though – and if all else fails – try it with pepperoni pizza: as unglamorous as it sounds, it’s always a winner in my book.


The Three Styles of Zin

THE GOVERNATOR

Huge, full-bodied wine, loads of fruit forwardness, tonnes of oaky tannin and steroid-induced alcohol. A drink-now wine, this is the style that most consumers associate with Zinfandel. Winemaking trends, however, currently seem to be going in more subtle directions.


THE MTV

As buxom as a bleach-blonde X Factor wannabe or a muscle bound, fake-tanned boy band trio. A fruit-driven wine with less of a tannin backbone – jammy, hot and overall quite confected in style and taste. This comprises the wine that cannot be named and also some entry-level red Zinfandel.


THE SECOND COMING

The newer style of Zin which is now entering the market. Restrained and less obvious, with unique bramble, spicy flavours and intense, concentrated dark berry fruit.Can have high alcohol but still balanced. Most importantly, it’s food friendly.


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine - November / December 2009

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