In Praise of Zinfandel

In the 1970’s Sutter Home Winery started producing and selling White Zinfandel wine. They were crappy wines that obviously had a great press agent. Despite the huge amount of it sold, it was actually created due to an accident occurring to what was basically waste product.

Sutter Home was producing red wine from the Zinfandel grape using a process known as saignée, also known as bleeding. After the juice has been in contact with the skins for a short time some is drained off. In the case of Sutter Home, this was done to increase the tannins in the red wine. As the proportion of juice to must is now higher, the the skins and seeds impart more tannins. What is left is rosé wine. However, in this instance it was basically waste product that was given to employees for free as it wasn’t fit to sell.

In 1975 the fermentation process became “stuck” and much of the sugar from the juice was never utilized by the yeast which left a residual sweetness in the resulting wine. Someone had the exceptionally bright, but quite evil, idea that this was marketable to an American public that was not all that wine savvy, and the White Zin craze was born.

Lest anyone think that this was an entirely negative thing, I believe that much of the current interest and boom in American wine culture is directly related to Sutter Home and the abomination known as White Zinfandel. Just as withered wives of 80’s political leaders asserted that smelling someone else’s joint at a P-Funk show would cause one to become a heroin addict, or as George Carlin put it, “Mother’s milk leads to cannabinol,” White Zin was a gateway into wine culture for many people.

Another positive was that many Zinfandel vines were saved from being uprooted to make way for other varietals due to the popularity and profitability of White Zinfandel. Fans of this grape have the aforementioned craze to thank for it still being around to enjoy on such a large scale.

On the negative side, both Zinfandel and rosé wine have terrible reputations due to their association with White Zinfandel, despite neither tasting anything like the stuff. Rosé is a topic for another time, but neither it nor Zinfandel deserve the negative connotations.

Zinfandel, the deep red stuff, is a big fruit-forward wine. It typically has a lot of raspberry or blackberry fruit mixed with brown sugar and spice notes. If it could ever shake off its associations with wines of ill-repute, I firmly believe that this wine could become a favorite of the American wine drinking public.

Most Zins should be drunk young because the fruit is the draw here, and it will fade with age. Also, many of these wines are quite high in alcohol and become “hot” over time when the fruitiness is no longer there to provide balance.

Zinfandel can be successfully paired with a lot of foods, steaks, ham, rich pasta dishes, and a lot more, but I really prefer it by itself or just a little cheese to nibble on. I find that the brown sugar and spice flavor is best without competition from food.

If you usually shun this varietal, do yourself a favor and pick up a bottle. If you don’t, I will be forced to write about it again, and next time I might not show as much restraint and start punning with “Zin.”

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