Seeing Red — Zinfandel, That is

Seeing Red — Zinfandel, That is

A legacy of the California gold rush, and a great autumn wine.

Every nation has certain foods and drinks that are so integral to its society that they become part of the very fabric of that nation’s history. In America, we have many such foods and drinks — hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, barbeque ribs, martinis, and Zinfandel wines.

Zinfandel is often thought of as the quintessential American wine grape, but it is unclear when exactly Zinfandel, a European native, first made it to these shores. Many wine historians now believe that the grape may have come to America as an unnamed vine-cutting from the Austrian Imperial Nursery in 1829. What is conclusively known is that since the early 1830s Americans have been planting a lot these tiny black grapes.

When many of the adventurers who had gone west to prospect for gold in the 1849 California gold rush became farmers in the 1850s, they had Zinfandel vines shipped to them from the east. Zinfandel has been grown in northern California ever since. By the end of the 19th century, Zinfandel was the most heavily planted red wine grape in California, as it is once again, in the early 21st Century.

Zinfandel can be used to produce a wide spectrum of wines, from dark full-bodied reds to pale light-bodied rosés. Since the early 1980s the now ubiquitous White Zinfandel has been the most widely made style of Zinfandel wine. White Zinfandel is generally a semi-sweet, pale pink wine, and has unfortunately turned many wine lovers away from Zinfandel.

However, in the last few decades there has been a resurgent interest in red wines made from Zinfandel. Red Zinfandels are generally dry, medium-bodied, food-friendly wines, with berry and earth flavors, which are ready to drink in their youth.

Since I last wrote a column on Zinfandels, five years ago, both the quantity, and alas, to some degree, the quality, of kosher Californian Zinfandels has decreased. On a positive note, however, a few Israeli wineries have started to produce quality red wines made from Zinfandel.

So for this month’s Fruit of the Vine, we tasted six kosher zinfandels or zinfandel-based blends, most of which would make good additions to your autumn table.

Surprisingly, the best wine in the tasting was from Israel. Dalton’s 2007 Zinfandel was made from Zinfandel grapes grown in the Galilee. Blended with 7 percent Merlot, and aged in new American oak barrels, this medium-to-full bodied wine has a complex nose of cherries, fennel, star anise and eucalyptus, with just a whiff of smoke. Look for flavors of cherries, red currents, fennel, star anise and black pepper. This wine is drinking well now, and should continue to do so for about another year.

Those seeking a budget-priced Zinfandel should consider Baron Herzog’s 2008 Zinfandel. Made from old-vine grapes grown in Lodi, California, and aged for a year in stainless steel tanks, this pleasant, medium bodied, bright-garnet colored wine has flavors and aromas of cherries, raspberries and cranberries, with notes of cedar, spice and vegetable matter. This wine should be consumed within the next year.

Red Zinfandel is a great choice for a casual meal, and goes well with salmon and other fatty fish, grilled meats, and grilled or baked chicken dishes. And Zinfandel has just the right heft for autumn drinking.

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