Zinfandel, the grape variety nearly exclusively identified with California today has new revelations in its origins. During a great part of the twentieth century it was thought that Agoston Haraszthy, pioneer of the wine industry in California, brought the vine from his native country, Hungary. However, Charles L. Sullivan, Californian historian, revealed that Haraszthy never mentioned Zinfandel in his writings from the 1860s, and that the vine was already known in the eastern US before Haraszthy arrived in California in 1849. The vine had been brought to the US from the Imperial Nursery of Austria by George Gibbs of Long Island, probably in 1829. From there he had brought the vine to Boston where it was grown in greenhouses and possibly had been named “Zenfendel” or “Zinfandal”, although it is still not known with certainty the origin of the name.
In 1849, after the California gold rush, many people who hadn’t found their fortune in the precious metal became farmers, Much of their activity depended upon the plants that arrived from the east, and in 1852 some Zinfandel vines arrived. By 1859 there were already Zinfandel vines in Sonoma and Napa, and in 1862 the secretary of the horticultural society of Sonoma gifted a bottle of wine made from these vines to a French winemaker working in California at the time. The winemaker affirmed that the wine had the flavor of “a good French claret”. Zinfandel was already well-established in California by 1880 especially for its capacity to produce wine in volume. It was a favorite among miners. And by the end of the nineteenth century Zinfandel was considered California’s own vine, planted in much of the better vineyards in northern California.
Not being a French vine Zinfandel was not included in the ampelographic studies of Montpellier, and its European origin was not confirmed until the first DNA tests in the 1990s. Zinfandel has been confirmed as the same vine as Primitivo of southern Italy, and that possibly those vines in Italy had arrived from the US! More DNA testing confirmed the vine Plavac Mali of Croatia as a cross of Zinfandel and Dobricic, an old and rare variety found on the island of Colta near the capital of Split. More searches in the coastal vineyards
turned up on the island of Kaštela, near Split, a very old and nearly extinct variety known as Crljenak Kaštelanski (literally “black grape of Kaštela). This vine looked very much like Zinfandel, and one final DNA test established that this effectively was Zinfandel, confirming its Croatian origin.
Zinfandel is a vine which flourishes in warmer climates, though not too warm as the grapes have thin skins and can lose moisture rapidly. The grapes grow in large bunches but don’t always mature at the same rate, and sometimes it is necessary to separate ripe grapes from unripe ones. Mature grapes can contain a very high level of natural sugars, and today it is not unusual to find wines surpassing 15% alcohol. It is possible to find Zinfandel made into various styles of wines, including blush, a style popularized by Sutter Home in the 1980s under the name White Zinfandel. The most serious wines are the red Zinfandels. Also to be found are Port-style Zinfandels.
Zinfandel vines are principally cultivated in California although it can be found in other states including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Washington. Approximately 11% of California’s vineyards are planted to Zinfandel, and a typical harvest produces about 400,000 tons of grapes, third place behind Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The areas known for producing the best wines are Amador, Santa Cruz Mountains, Dry Creek Valley, Paso Robles, Napa Valley, Russian River Valley, Mendocino County, and Lodi, which has some of the oldest vines in California. In Italy the majority of Zinfandel (known as Primitivo although the name Zinfandel can also be used) grows in Apulia and is the twelfth most planted grape in the country. The most
important DOCs are Primitivo di Manduria, Gioia del Colle Primitivo, and Falerno del Massico Primitivo. With the link firmly established between Zinfandel and Primitivo, some Italian wineries are producing a wine high in alcohol and aged in American oak that is reminiscent of California.
In Croatia there was never a varietal Crljenak Kaštelanski produced until the link with Zinfandel was discovered. According to the University of Zagreb, in 2001 there were only twenty-two vines of Crljenak Kaštelanski growing in all Croatia, but in 2008 the number had increased to some two thousand. Professor Edi Maletic, member of the team that discovered the link between Zinfandel and Crljenak Kaštelanski, produced his first wine ZPC (Zinfandel/Primitivo/ Crljenak Kaštelanski) in 2005. Zinfandel can also be found in small quantities in Australia, Chile and South Africa.