Zinfandel has been a key player in Paso Robles winemaking since the 19th century. Today, the area boasts some of the largest old zinfandel vineyards in California, some producing since before Prohibition.
“The oldest vines in Paso Robles are zinfandel vines,” said Malani Anderson, manager of Turley Wine Cellars’ Templeton tasting room. Based in St. Helena, co-owner Larry Turley specializes in finding old zinfandel vines in the state.
In 2000, Turley bought the old Pesenti Winery and its vineyards, planted in 1923. The older vines, Anderson said, produce more complex flavored wine.
“But these days, if you ask someone who doesn’t know the history of Paso Robles, I think they would say this area is becoming known for Rhône varieties,” she added. “I think it just depends on who you ask.”
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Called “America’s heritage grape,” wine histories indicate zinfandel vines arrived with Europe immigrants accustomed to making table wines for their families. Eventually the vines traveled their way across the continent to California. It’s considered the only grape varietal “discovered” in the United States.
Researchers at UC Davis have studied its DNA and say it’s most closely related to an obscure vine in Croatia. An Italian varietal called primitivo is also a close relative and clonal link.
Widely planted during the Gold Rush, zinfandel was the most grown grape in California between the 1860s and the early 1990s, according to the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers.
Commercial wineries saw demand for inexpensive white zinfandel rise in the 1970s. In the 1980s, interest in red zin grew as wine drinkers branched out to explore fine wines.
Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, or ZAP, was founded in 1991. It now includes more than 250 wineries and nearly 5,000 enthusiasts. It holds an annual celebration of the grape in San Francisco, while the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance hosts its Zinfandel Festival each spring.
Although its sales and consumption have never reached the levels of the “Big Three” — cabernet, merlot and chardonnay — zinfandel has acquired a strong cult following that supports wineries specializing in the grape.
“I passionately believe that zinfandel is Paso Robles and Paso Robles is zinfandel,” said Steve Felton. Norman Vineyards’ winemaker, Felton produces five different red zinfandels, white zin and a port. “Arguably it’s one of the finest regions for zinfandel in terms of the terroir in the state.”
Temperature swings between the hot summer days and cool nights enhance the complexity of zin in this region, Felton said. Zinfandel’s uneven ripening pattern also adds to that complexity, local growers said. When harvested, flavors from perfectly ripe berries combine with pink or raisined ones.
Steve Peck, red winemaker for J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, said the San Jose-based winery was attracted to Paso Robles for its cabernet sauvignon. But Peck believes it’s important to make zinfandel too.
“If you’re going to consider yourself an authentic player in Paso Robles wine, I feel you have to have a zin in your portfolio and it better be good,” Peck said. “The folks that have been coming to Paso Robles for a decade or more, it’s something they associate with us.”
ZIN’S MANY FACES
While some wineries describe zinfandel as a “hard sell” on the national market, it sells well in local tasting rooms, wineries say. With its berry and spice flavors, drinkers with less experienced palates may prefer it over bolder wines such as cabernet, with its higher tannin levels.
The red grape is incredibly flexible, capable of producing anything from a pink sparkler to a full-bodied red to a rich, late harvest dessert wine. Zinfandel port, made by adding brandy and sugar, is a classic pairing for chocolate.
It also blends well with others, such as syrah, petit sirah or cabernet sauvignon. The other grapes can round out zin’s flavors, colors and aromatics to produce a richer, more balanced wine.
Zin blends are seeing resurgence in popularity, winemakers report, and could be the next hot trend for ever exploring enthusiasts. They may also help ensure the grape’s future in the developing Paso Robles region, as cabernet and Rhône producers add it in their red blends.
“Historically, the first zinfandel vineyards were zin blends,” said Josh Beckett, head winemaker at Peachy Canyon Winery. “They were field blends with mataró, mourvèdre, counoise.”
Since the early 1980s, his father, Doug Beckett, has been making zinfandel from Paso Robles grapes. Today, Peachy Canyon counts 10 different zinfandels among the wines on its menu.
“I love zin blends,” Beckett said. “I think personally a lot of them make better zins. But I think there’s always going to be people out there who want a straight, true zin.”