Zinfandel: Big and Flavorful But Plenty of Potential to be Reserved and Elegant, Too

This article originally appeared in the December, 2017 issue of Bellingham Alive Magazine

Zinfandel. Big, brambly, full-bodied, and a favorite of many; this oftentimes “brash” red wine grape is also perfectly capable of producing a more reserved and elegant flavor profile when needed.

It’s that versatility that gives “Zin,” as members of its fan club affectionately call it, the ability to pair with a variety of foods and helped it achieve rock-star status as both a stand-alone sipper and what some consider to be the perfect, wintertime adult beverage.


It’s been generally accepted that the U.S. version of Zinfandel originated in Croatia as the Crljenak Kastelanski grape. The name, unpronounceable to most Americans, was thankfully introduced here as “Zinfendal” by a Boston nursery owner in 1832.

Zinfandel vines were first planted in California in the 1850’s during the Gold Rush, and after almost disappearing into obscurity in the 1930’s, the grape has stormed back to become the third most produced variety in the state. The Lodi area in Central California, the Sierra Foothills in Amador County, and Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley are some of the state’s more notable growing areas.

nullZinfandel also has ties to the Italian grape Primitivo. In 1975, then UC Davis PhD student, Dr. Wade Wolfe, was able to show that the two grapes were genetically identical. U.S. wine labeling regulations now require that Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately, endearing the Zinfandel name to domestic wineophiles as a uniquely American descriptor.

Today, Zinfandel production has expanded into Washington, and although production is but a fraction of the state’s red grape total, some of Washington’s top wineries currently feature it, including Maryhill Winery in the Columbia Gorge, Prosser’s Thurston Wolfe Winery, Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards in Chelan, and Forgeron Cellars in Walla Walla.


Zinfandels carry a broad assortment of characteristics, but are primarily low to medium in acidity and medium to medium-high in tannins. They’re also usually made with a high alcohol content that ranges anywhere from 14 to 16 percent. This can give the wine a bolder, more full-bodied persona that may also come across as “hot” if not kept in check by a good balance of fruit and a mindful winemaker.

nullPeppery, smoky aromatics often predominate, and flavor characteristics include jammy, brambly blackberry and raspberry fruit, black cherry, plum, fig, blueberry, black currant, and star anise. With finishing notes that frequently carry spicy accents of black pepper, clove, and nutmeg, it’s no wonder that Zinfandels result in delicious, crowd-pleasing wines that are sometimes best enjoyed served simply on their own.

When food pairings are considered, the first suggestions that come to mind include beef tenderloin, pork, barbeque ribs, veal, and lamb. Zinfandel can also pair perfectly with roast turkey or chicken, pasta with tomato-based sauces, caramelized vegetables, or even a pepperoni pizza.

A blush wine, referred to as White Zinfandel, is also a popular choice with some. Made from the same red grape but with very little skin contact prior to crushing (giving the wine its signature pink color), this sweeter option of Zinfandel might best be served with a glazed, holiday ham or spicy Italian sausage.
And Zinfandels made in a late harvest style are also worth seeking out. These wine’s naturally high or fortified alcohol levels are purposefully made with a higher sugar content, allowing them to pair well with many items on the dessert menu such as black forest cake, truffles or tiramisu.


Thurston Wolfe 2013 Zinfandel (about $20) – This Zin earned a silver medal at the 2017 Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival by displaying plenty of delicious, juicy blackberry/blueberry flavors followed by a finish of toasted hazelnut, brunt caramel, sweet cedar and supple tannins. A Washington Zin lovers dream!

Thurston Wolfe 2015 Primitivo (about $25) – Dr. Wade Wolfe’s interpretation of the Italian equivalent of the Zinfandel grape offers a mouthful of candied cherry fruits along with a chewy finish with great length that allows for savoring every drop.

Forgeron Cellars 2014 Zinfandel (about $35) – Tasteful from start to finish, this beautifully crafted wine opens with clove and pepper aromatics. Spicy strawberry and blackberry flavors extend into a slightly chocolaty finish with a gentle hint of crème brûlée.

Dynasty Cellars 2013 Reserve Zinfandel (about $35) – A lovely bouquet of violets and black plum, a base of dark fruit flavors, and a strong finish of toasted oak might make this Zin from the Bellingham-based winery a formidable pairing partner for semisweet chocolate.

Plungerhead 2014 Lodi Zinfandel (about $15) – This unabashedly over-the-top California Zin is packed with fruit-forward blueberry, black cherry and black currant flavors. The sinfully delicious finish suggests brown sugar spice and candied walnuts.

Renwood Winery 2014 Old Vine Zinfandel (about $20) – Bright, understated red cherry and raspberry fruits fill the glass, with contrasting touches of warm vanilla bean and spice box on the finish. A solid, dependable, and well-priced choice.

Renwood Winery 2015 Fiddletown Zinfandel (about $25) – This beautifully balanced Amador County, California Zin features plush black cherry and berry flavors, nuances of black licorice and vanilla on the mid-palate, and gentle smoky accents on a slightly textured finish. Exceptional!

Renwood Special Reserve Grandpère Zinfandel (about $49) – Blended with 20% Petite Sirah and 5% Barbera, this exquisite selection exhibits subtle complexities, nice acidity, and supple tannins. Blackberry and ultra-dark plum fruit, an underlying layer of ripe fig, and a whisper of bittersweet chocolate highlight this refined and elegant Zin.

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