Benjamin Disraeli, the former British prime minister and novelist, was famously quoted as proclaiming: “The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can never end.”
But I must disagree with the late and esteemed Mr. Disraeli, particularly when it comes to wine. The first grape I ever had the pleasure of making into wine more than 40 years ago was zinfandel. And even though the wine-like result was so over-oaked it tasted like toothpicks, I still love zinfandel to this day.
And, by the way, the latest version of my homemade zinfandel, made from Amador County grapes in 2018, was just bottled a few weeks ago and actually does taste like wine!
I consider zinfandel America’s wine even though it is genetically identical to an unpronounceable Croatian vine (crljenak kastelanski) and the more widely known Italian primitivo grape. But the good old US of A is where the wine has achieved stature and a worldwide following. The vine was first planted in Sonoma County in the 1850s, and — according to the California Wine Institute — zinfandel is the third-leading grape variety planted in California, with nearly 45,000 acres planted in the state.
But still, most novice wine drinkers think zinfandel is a white, slightly sweet wine best suited for quaffing at picnics. And there is a reason for this impression many of us have of the grape. When one particular winery could not find a market for his over-produced zinfandel in the 1970s, he decided to use the excess grape production to make a wine in a slightly sweet rose style.
The rest is history. The new wine was called “white zinfandel,” and it became a sensation. To this day, white zinfandel still retains a huge market share among American wine drinkers. And while I will occasionally chill a bottle of Beringer white zin for porch sipping, red zinfandel is still among my favorite wines of all time.
I suppose my fondness for zinfandel stems from the versatility of the vine to produce wines that range in intensity, from the aforementioned white zin to full-throttled, purple monsters. I also love the wine because it is so malleable and can complement such a wide range of dishes.
And with the arrival of fall, my thoughts turn to richer textured wines like zinfandel and fuller-flavored edibles, including all manner of grilled meat dishes that just seem to go so well with the wine. So, when I cook for friends and family this time of year, the food is usually straightforward, down-home, meat- and starch-type meals, such as grilled thick-cut pork chops, leg of lamb, baked lasagna or red beans and rice.
So what are the flavor profiles of zinfandel? Well, regardless of the intensity of the finished product, most zinfandels do share some general flavor characteristics, such as dark berries and black cherries, along with briary and peppery nuances.
However, the easiest way to pick the right zin for dinner is to categorize the wine according to its weight and intensity of flavor. That way you can decide which style to use with the food you’ll be preparing.
Below are some of my favorite zinfandels rated by intensity and weight, along with some matching food suggestions. Incidentally, these wines range in price from about $20 to no more than $50 a bottle.
- Lighter-bodied wines: Peachy Canyon Incredible Red; Marietta Old Vines Red; Pedroncelli Mother Clone; Sobon Estate Old Vines; Ravenswood Lodi; and Bogle. Try these wines with pizza, grilled hamburgers, Italian sausage or meatloaf.
- Medium-bodied wines: Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines; Sebastiani Sonoma; Seghesio Old Vines; Dry Creek Vineyards; Ridge Geyserville; Renwood Old Vines; Easton Amador County; and Rosenblum Paso Robles. Good with roasted pork tenderloin, grilled salmon or barbecued baby back ribs.
- Full-bodied wines: Ridge Lytton Springs; Renwood Grandpere; Montevina Terre D’Oro; Chateau Montelena; Grgich-Hills; Turley Juvenile; Storybook Mountain Eastern Exposure; Clos Du Val; and Hartford Russian River Valley. Try these purple monsters with pasta in marinara sauce, hearty stews, grilled rack of lamb and marinated and stuffed flank steak.