Big, bold zinfandels

Col-head-ZalkinWe move now from bourbon, a famously American whiskey, to zinfandel, a famously American grape.

Though the grape has its origins in Croatia, it was all but wiped out in Europe by phylloxera, which ravaged European vineyards in the late 19th Century. But in California, the vines survived, and thrived. Zinfandel was the boom wine of the gold rush, where it was enjoyed by newly minted millionaires.

Zinfandel makes big, brawny wine that is a bit sweet and a bit tannic, with a smoky aftertaste. Vintners seeking an even more concentrated wine employed the French saignée method, bleeding off a bit of the liquid at the beginning of fermentation to punch up the remaining wine. The wine they removed was bottled and sold as “white zinfandel,” an affable, sweet blush wine that became spectacularly popular.

The demand for white zinfandel kept vineyards in business at a time when wine consumption in the United States was vastly eclipsed by cocktails and beer. But while many found white zinfandel easy to love, an equal number found it easy to hate, and by the end of the 20th Century, the blush wine that saved zinfandel has also given it a questionable reputation.

However, even as the fruit of these fine vines endured the indignity of being squeezed into cheap supermarket plonk, the enduring popularity of white zinfandel kept them from being pulled up, and allowed them to mature into superior old-growth vines. Now, in more skillful hands, they yield great, bold wines with a lot of flavor.

Zinfandel also has some of the most organized and enthusiastic fans out there. There’s the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP), who run, and the ZAP festival in California, which is the world’s largest single varietal wine event.

There’s a lot to love about zinfandel. It glimmers a bright and cheerful red in your glass, but packs explosive jam flavors, followed by smoke and tobacco. If you’ve ever thought your wine was too wimpy, than this is the grape for you. There are fantastic deals to be had on California zinfandel, and it’s a great option for people who like a powerful cabernet sauvignon but are looking with a lower price point.

There are many zinfandels with sophisticated presence, but at its essence, this is a wine that loves to party. Modern California zinfandels are a far cry from the sweet white zinfandels of yore, but it still lands on the sweeter side of reds, which means it pairs wonderfully with spicy foods, while the smoky flavors complement complex sauces and grilled meats.

A wine for meat lover’s pizza and barbecue, zinfandel is also a fantastic foil to the holiday buffet, a wine to go with greasy, salty holiday appetizers, like chicken wings, meatball sliders, and chili. Its high alcohol content adds voluptuous body, but watch out, too many glasses might have you feeling more festive than you intended.

Here are a few featured zinfandel wines for your enjoyment:

• Brazin. Big, bold, and balanced, this Lodi zinfandel offers rich black fruit, dark plum and cocoa. Soft vanilla, smoke and spices, with a lingering finish.

• Candor. Made from a blend of old and young vines, this wine features the zing of bright berries, with silky tannins and toasted spice.

• Dry Creek. This old vine zinfandel brings powerful black raspberry aromas, grounded by earthy depth. Subtle hints of black and white pepper round out a mouth-watering finish.

• Hullabaloo. This wine strikes a great balance between elegance and brawn, with aromas of raspberry, boysenberry and black currant offset by delightful spice and oak.

• Klinker Brick. Another old vine gem, with jammy dark fruit punched up by fresh herbal notes, pepper and spicy oak. Medium body, and firm structure, with a smooth and lingering finish.

You can find all of these delightful zinfandel wines for purchase at our store, Old Greenwich Fine Wines & Cheese, located at 195 Sound Beach Avenue, Old Greenwich, or visit our website,, or call 203-990-3030 to place an order. When you stop in, we invite you to taste a number of our favorite wines while we help you find the right bottle for your palate.

Robert Zalkin is the owner of Old Greenwich Fine Wines at 195 Sound Beach Avenue. His column is available weekly at

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