Old World vs. New World Round Five: Zinfandel!

I have heard Zinfandel referred to as both “the group hug of wine’” and a “get you laid wine”. Either way you look at it, Zin gets physical. When not being blasphemed in the name of sickening sweet white Zinfandel, it is sensual and sexual yet heartwarming and familial. Oh what a grape. I remember my first. It was Thanksgiving Day in the middle of nowhere with Kentucky strangers and the boyfriend who had moved there to work for them. As the sun started to go down, he handed me a glass of red. Perched on the edge of a sofa ignoring the chaos of football and turkey fat, I sipped and escaped. That wine, which I later confirmed was by Olabisi , was everything. It was rich with baking spices but delicate. It felt like slipping into a red silk blouse that someone had sprayed with a beautiful perfume. It definitely got the boyfriend laid later, although I don’t think I group hugged the Kentuckians. Back home in St. Louis I spotted “White Zinfandel” on a menu and ordered it, excited to see some iteration of the thing I’d loved. My friend across the table wrinkled his nose. “What? I replied, and tried to explain I’d tasted a Zinfandel that was red recently and it was amazing! “I wonder how a white one is,” I mused. “It is not what you think,” replied the friend. And indeed the bland sweet pink thing that showed up perplexed me. In that moment I became devoted to spreading the gospel of regular old red Zinfandel. That’s my history with Zinfandel, but it turns out the variety goes back not only to my youth, but all the way back to the old Old World. Much as people claim it as being a California representative, it was later figured out that the Zinfandel we have here was likely brought from a nursery in Vienna in the early 1800’s. Then scientists determined that Zinfandel was the same grape as Primitivo, a variety largely grown in Puglia. But wait, there’s more! In the late 90’s the University of California at Davis joined forces with University of Zagreb in the great ‘Zinquest’, analyzing grape DNA and deducing that a grape known as Crljenak Kaštelanski from Croatia was a match. The same grape had also has the moniker of Tribidrag. I’m not sure why they changed it. Although Crljenak Kaštelanski translates to “red grape of Kaštela” and I do like factual names. But wait! There is yet more. Are these grapes all one and the same? Some scientists using a different type of analysis say they aren’t so sure. If I knew how to do DNA analysis I’d figure it out, but in the meantime, I figured I’d taste test as many iterations of the grape formerly known as Dionysus-knows-what for you. Before my favorite finds I know you want to know—WHAT ZINFANDEL AM I SHOWERING WITH??? Well, it is my duty to say you shouldn’t bathe n imbibe. But were you to do such things, I have to go with the cheapest Ravenswood you can find. Because like showers, it is affordable but will make you happy and content. It’s not called settling, it’s called wisdom. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ CROATIA The oldest and…the best? I tasted only a few examples of the OG Zin seeing as one has to go on a bit of a quest and do some mail ordering to get them, even in Los Angeles. I am sharing the one that blew my mind below. Honestly, I loved it so much and I am still not over it. 2015 Vina Matela Crljenak Kaštelanski Zinfandel It is from Middle and South Dalmatia and WOW! It is spicy, crunchy, and earthy but swathed in a sheer fruit cloak. The sass is obvious, but gently shaded by a dried and fresh berry shim. The family Matela embraces traditional viticulture and winemaking, “with respect to new findings in wine making” according to Wine & more from whence I purchased it. Natural yeast. Phenomenal taste. I need more. ITALY 2015 Tormaresca Torcicoda Salento Primitivo Tormaresca is a producer I have adored in times past—their Aglianico is outstanding. Salento is one of THE Puglia sub-regions for Primitivo. This one is sour cherries, berries n’ bruising, rough but not, sour yet hinting at sweet. It is…a tease? But! A tease will keep you going. You will be satisfied with yourself for giving in to the chase. 2015 Layer Cake Primitivo “aka Zinfandel” I love that the label goes out of its way to make sure consumers know what they are getting. I poured two glasses of it and as my boyfriend walked in the room he questioned, “What smells like chocolate?” This wine does. It is like Raisinettes with a hint of earth. If you see this at the grocery store and you want a wine that feels like dessert and isn’t sweet, go for it. Get the whole Layer Cake. CALIFORNIA Zin in Cali! I’m sorry, I’ll stop abusing the English language: Zinfandel in California. It was our--I’m not a native but I think 12 years here allows me ownership claims--most grown grape until 1998 when Cabernet Sauvignon stole its thunder. We grow it in two key places: Lodi and Dry Creek Valley. Although Amador County has our state’s oldest vines, purportedly, at the age of 150-ish in the Grandpère Vineyard. I’m a Dry Creek fan, myself. 2016 Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys Sonoma County Zin blend 68% Zinfandel/15% Carignan/12% Petite Sirah/5% Grenache Oh, the venerable Ridge. It is good. Have I had different tiers? Yah. But like Ravenswood, I’ve adored them all, and this falls in the medium plus price category, and it is mega enjoyable. It tilts at syrupy without being cloying, filled with red berries of every damn sort. Plus baking spice and…tarragon? Something cool and green underlies all. Go team Ridge. Ravenswood IN GENERAL I LOVE ALL RAVENSWOOD ALWAYS AND FOREVER! But the one I picked for this piece was not available at the supermarket. I special-ordered one of their top-of-the-line bottles: Belloni Vineyard Russian River Valley 2013 . Oh, my, this wine. It is unctuous in a pleasant way. It is blueberry syrup on pancakes but not sweet. For some reason I drank and thought “peach blossom”--I don’t know if that is a thing, but I thought of white peaches which are floral and astringent all in one turn. Glorious. A. Rafanelli Dry Creek Zinfandel This is a winery I put myself on the waiting list to get onto the mailing list to be eligible to purchase a few paltry bottles a year. It is that popular. It was worth the wait. I’ve been buying A. Rafanelli for a few years now. It is a smidge pricy, but always delightfully rich, balanced, and soothingly muscular. I feel safe in the arms of Rafanelli. So who is the winner? I have to admit. I will forever be a California Zinfandel girl BUT! If you are going to go back, go all the way back. Skip past the Primitivo and go to the grape’s roots in Croatia. Develop your own history with the grape’s history. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: But Is It Vegan? Classic Pairings for the Veggie Soul: Pairing Five Classic Pairings for the Veggie Soul: Pairing Four Classic Pairings for the Veggie Soul: Pairing Three Old World vs. New World Round Four: Chenin Blanc! You can also listen to Ellen's podcast with Shaughn Buchholz, The Wine Situation here .


Torcicoda Salento Primitivo 2015

Power and balance and fun. Tormaresca makes fun but serious wines. Old meets new. Black cherries undercurrent of licorice and/or caraway. Smooth very well integrated tannins. Solid juice. Take that to mean what you will. — 5 years ago

Andrew, David and 7 others liked this

Vinarija Matela

Crljenak Kaštelanski Zinfandel 2015

Wow hey! Hey wow! This was unexpected and it is exciting, downright crunchy and spicy but it is wearing a see-through fruit cloak, so those elements are visible but sheathed. It won’t attack you but surprise you like a spectre with a gentle “boo”. And then a show of peppercorn sprinkled bravado. — 5 years ago

Bill, Severn and 16 others liked this
Greg Turner

Greg Turner

love the Zin
Ellen Clifford

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@Greg Turner this is a worthy showing of its Croatian roots!


Reserve Zinfandel 2015

Very much dug this sweet California Dry Creek Valley baby tho it veers on the side of fruitiness the non-wine-person might describe as sweet. There may be a bit more residual sugar but the fruit is balanced with generous acidity. It’s friggin’ jam with a dash of lemon curd stirred in. Very lovely. — 5 years ago

Paul, Trixie and 10 others liked this
Ellen Clifford

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@Dan White oh f yah!. You’ve tried? I know you are a cali zin connoisseur. We do need to chat about them sometime!
Dan White

Dan White

@Ellen Clifford indeed! I would love that!

Jako vino Stina

Stina Tribidrag Crljenak 2016

Excellent wine. Strong wine. But balanced. Yet the flavors haven’t knitted themselves all as one quite yet. Although much like piecing together the story of Zinfandel aka Tribidrag, the different sensations arresting your attention in separate parts has a charm all its own. — 5 years ago

Trixie, Severn and 13 others liked this


Primitivo di Manduria 2016

Super mellow. New worldian perhaps? Velvety and not super nuanced but good to consume. — 5 years ago

Serge, David and 10 others liked this

Bota Box Vineyards

California Old Vine Zinfandel

Also tastes like, oh hey it’s an inexpensive but drinkable cali zin. Cali zin not some sorta sin. It’s okay. Look I feel weird about the whole boxed wine genre so I want to report the ones you can go to if going box. So far if going box Bota is doing the best job of producing things that taste like wine. Except one other thing but stay tuned... — 5 years ago

Trixie, David and 4 others liked this

Unti Vineyards

Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2015

Primitivo clone! With just a smidge of petite Sirah and barbera. In a blind tasting I don’t know what I’d call—it’s all macerated blackberries and strawberries and green branches. Tannins smooth and perfect. Metaphor time? This wine is a “pizza” on some other bread sort. There is something there that makes you identify if and it rocks your tastebud but...It could be another thing. Dang clones. — 5 years ago

Ron, Paul and 28 others liked this
Ellen Clifford

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@Phil A yes, cheers!!🍷
Anthony Lombardi

Anthony Lombardi

Their Barbera is my favorite American take on that grape.
Ellen Clifford

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@Anthony Lombardi i definitely need to try more of their stuff!

Ravenswood Winery

Belloni Single Vineyard Zinfandel 2013

Silk and tart like...my soul? Maybe. Probably not my soul is silk and umami. Ravenswood doesn’t disappoint. This one one of my first top o’ the line R-woods. It is berry rich and carries undertones of semi-raw white peach which is to say pleasantly bitingly acid and a wee bit floral. Ooh. Ah. Love it. — 5 years ago

Paul, Ira and 13 others liked this

Ridge Vineyards

Three Valleys Sonoma County Zinfandel Blend 2016

This is the family friend you’ve been attached to all your life but recently realized is not in fact the wisest person you know. As in, you trust them. Some advice is stellar but you just realized that “I’ll love you forever” doesn’t make them the authority on...all. Though Ridge is close to being that. Bright red berries and tannins at least as high as fruit so new world to the core. Alcohol higher—this is obvi new world but the blending varieties make one remember how multiverse Zin is. The grape for all theories string or no. — 5 years ago

Jason, Eric and 24 others liked this
MaJ CappS

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This is always on my shelf. Always a lovely, lovely wine, with 0 disappointments.
Ellen Clifford

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@MaJ CappS so far haven’t had a Ridge disappoint!

Once & Future Wines

Teldeschi Vineyard Frank's Block Zinfandel

I love this wine! Joel Peterson makes good things. It’s all the baking spices and currants, dried and fresh, you could hope to have. Silky and beautiful. — 5 years ago

Paul, Brendan and 12 others liked this