The Best Zinfandel

Old Vine Zinfandel. Photo courtesy
I often get e-mails from friends asking wine questions. Usually they are wine recommendations, or wine/food pairing questions. This week, I received one from a friend of mine, and I thought it might be worth expanding on. His question, "Quick question...,maybe? In your opinion, where on the west coast of the U.S. is the best Zinfandel grapes grown?"

My response was that "best" is pretty subjective, but that I could narrow that down a little bit. First, California has the "best" Zinfandel, and to narrow that further, I think there are a few regions that do a good job with it: Paso Robles, Lodi (and the Sierra Foothills), and Sonoma/Napa.

Zinfandel has always been referred to as California’s native grape, but that is impossible, as there are no Vitis Vinifera grape varieties that are native to the Americas. It is now thought that it was brought to California during the gold rush, and probably came from the East Coast, via imports from Europe. It is directly related to Italy's Primitivo grape and probably a descendant of a Croatian variety known as Crljenak Kastelanski. DNA evidence is now supporting this theory. While California gets all the attention, Zinfandel is grown in at least 15 other states in the U.S., as well as small production in Australia and Mexico.

Zinfandel is a late ripening grape, so a long growing season is needed, but doesn't respond well to continuous warm weather. Diurnal temperature changes are needed (warm days and cool nights). Soil also makes a difference, as Zinfandel is subject to bunch rot. Well drained soil is ideal. Many of the old vines around the Lodi and California river delta are planted in sandy, well drained, soil.

Harvest is a crucial time for Zinfandel. It is an uneven ripening grape. Within a bunch, you may have ripe grapes mixed in with green grapes and even raisins. The best wineries will make multiple passes through their vineyard to pick only the ripe grapes. Zinfandel also is a high sugar grape, so when fermented, those sugars can convert into a large amount of alcohol (have you ever really looked at the alcohol levels on your bottle of Zinfandel?). With those high sugar levels comes lower acidity, and softer tannins. This helps to emphasize the dark fruit notes that are so typical of Zinfandel. Zinfandel is one of those unique grape varieties that can be made into different styles. From white Zinfandel, to fruity, to spicy to dessert wine, Zinfandel covers the field. Since Zinfandel is a fairly light colored wine, it is often blended with Petite Sirah, which adds a little depth of color.

Certain California regions are regarded as "exceptional" for Zinfandel, each with their own particular characteristics:
  1. The Sierra Foothills has a reputation for big, full-bodied Zinfandel. These extra-ripe wines are characterized as "jammy, briary, and brambly", having aromas of sweet berries.
  2. Sonoma County contains the warm Dry Creek Valley AVA, known for its juicy Zinfandel with bright fruit, balanced acidity and notes of blackberry, anise and pepper. Dry Creek Valley AVA produces Zinfandel in a variety of styles ranging from the high-alcohol style to balanced, spicy wines. And, the Russian River Valley AVA has a lot of "old vine" Zinfandel acreage. These wines are known for their spicy and somewhat lower alcohol wines. During cooler growing seasons, the Russian River Zins may have difficulty ripening, and produce their best wines during warm vintages.
  3. Paso Robles with its hot days and cool evenings, produce Zinfandel known for being soft and round, but often very high in alcohol.
  4.  Napa Valley produces Zinfandel wines described as plummy and intense, tasting of red berry fruits with cedar and vanilla.
  5. Lodi has some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in California. While often used for White Zinfandel production, in the red style, Lodi Zinfandels have a reputation for being juicy and approachable. Lodi is also producing some of the finest "port style" dessert wines from the Zinfandel grape.

So, to answer the question of "best" would have to be determined by the style you like. I like Tobin James. They seem to make the most of these different styles. You can get full blown "fruit bombs" with their Fat Boy, or drier spicier styles with their Ballistic. I happen to like their Dusi Vineyards label (or anything coming out of Dusi Vineyards) it is a nice cross between spicy and fruity. My wine club just had a Zinfandel from Napa (Buehler Vineyards) and it seemed to be the favorite of the night. One of the nicest Zinfandels I've had was Ancient Peaks, however they are hard to find, and even when you go to their winery, their inventory may already be depleted. If you look at wine ratings, the Russian River, Dry Creek, Napa Valley, Paso Robles and Lodi seem to get the high ratings, but again, it depends on what you like, as to which region is the "best".

Please share your favorites, by adding comments to this post.


    1. Great information! Zinfandel is such a great flavor of wine.

    2. Zinfandel is one of my favorites, thanks for sharing the info!

    3. The Zinfandel that first caught my palate was a Trader Joe's Reserve Zinfandel from Sonoma County,2009.

      What is "AVA"? Is that short for a technical term or the name of a vintner???

      1. Teri,
        AVA stands for American Viticultural Area. These are designated growing areas, with special attributes. For example, Napa Valley is an AVA, and within Napa are a number of more specific areas: Rutherford, Oakville, St Helena, etc.

    4. Great article!! I have fallen in love with Cigar Zin, an old vine wine from grapes grown in the Lodi. It has cocoa notes and was made to be paired with beef. In fact, it put beef back on my plate!!! Try it!!

      1. Haven't had that one, but will watch for it. The old vines around Lodi and the East Bay make some interesting wines. Try some of them from Contra Costa County....really old vines!