Zinfandel: Master Spy & 6 Other Spy Secrets

Zinfandel Vines

Did you know that Zinfandel is its Spy Name? Its real name can't even be pronounced (at least by me). Did you know that its secret base of operations is over 6,200 miles away from California? Don’t let it fool you; it's more than red wine. It can morph into all kinds of disguises. This wine is truly a master spy.

Spy Secrets Exposed

1. Not a California Native

Most of us believe Zinfandel was born and bred right here in California. Nope! Its secret base of operations is in Europe, specifically Croatia. Croatia, a Mediterranean country, lies to the east of Italy, right across the Adriatic Sea. That's pretty much where it dead-ends because Croatia has two main growing regions, Continental and Coastal. Of those two areas, no one knows exactly where it originated.

Zinfandel first came to the United States via the East Coast between 1820 and 1829 and was soon broadly grown in heated greenhouses for table grapes. Table grapes!? What?

Then the "Gold Rush" hit in the 1850s. A guy by the name of William Robert Prince and other nurserymen came to California and brought Zinfandel with them. The rest is history.

Croatia Wine Region
Croatia's wine growing regions
By Captain Blood (Captain Blood at en:wikipedia.org)

2. Cruised Through Prohibition (More Like Tiptoed)

By 1930 the failed grand social experiment, called "Prohibition," badly deteriorated the wine industry. Numerous Zinfandel vineyards survived by supplying the underground home market, and sacramental wine for the Catholic Church. It's also said that Italian immigrants arriving in the late 1800s to 1900s loved and adopted this wine and kept it flourishing through the Prohibition. Thank you, Italian immigrants!

3. Long-Lived Wine

The term "Old Vine Zinfandel" means it's really old. Seriously, there's no legal definition for the term "Old Vine," but the wine industry considers vineyards continually producing for over 40 years to be “Old Vine”. Because of #2 above there are some seriously old plantings of this grape (75 to 100 years old) producing today. The theory is that older vines produce a richer wine.

4. Master of Disguise

Zinfandel is a master of disguise. Its talent lies in the fact it may be the most versatile wine variety there is. It can disguise itself as a sweet white blush, known as White Zinfandel. It can disguise itself as an arid desert, bold red or dry rosé-style. Amazing, right? Get this; Zinfandel is also used on the other end of the spectrum to make sweet, dessert and Port-style wines. Nice!

5. Antique Pruning Style

Head Pruning Style

As a guy with a huge crush on vineyards (pardon the pun), I love wine tidbits like this next one. Zinfandel prefers to be head-pruned. No wires. Head pruned vines look like a bush. It's also called Gobelet (a fancy French term meaning "cup"). The head can be close to the ground or higher up (better frost protection). Historically documented "vine head pruning" goes as far back as the Romans. The Romans tried pretty much every conceivable pruning style (constrained by current-day technology), but they loved their head pruning tied to individual stakes.

Years ago, I asked a wine grower why a particular area of grapes was head pruned when all other vines were wired trellised. He said (paraphrasing), "That's Zinfandel. They ripen better head pruned because the grapes ripen unevenly. This is the only method I will prune Zinfandel."

So, if you see a vineyard with ancient looking head pruned vines, you’ve spotted a Zinfandel “bat cave”.

6. It Loves Tanning in The Sun

This variety does great growing in warm to cool-warm climates to fully ripen the fruit, which is all over California, except coastal areas. The grapes don't like super-hot areas, as the berries tend to shrivel. When it comes to soil type, it's very adaptable… much like Cabernet Sauvignon.

7. Name Reveal

This wine grape has been hiding out under a spy name - Zinfandel. Extensive DNA research revealed it to be the same grape grown in Apulia (the "heel" of Italy) called Primitivo. There's more! Primitivo has the same DNA fingerprint as a Croatian grape called Crljenak Kaštelanski. So, in the 18th century, the Italians brought it into their country and called it Primitivo for the “first” so-called primitive wine. No one can say why Primitivo turned into Zinfandel with etymologists and Zinfandel fans alike stunned with such a dazzling display of tradecraft.

Its Spy Name was a Good Choice

So, if were you to hide out as a grape variety spy in the United States, would you use the name Crljenak Kaštelanski? Heck, I doubt any of us can even pronounce it! Even the Italians couldn’t pronounce it, so they renamed it. Primitivo is fine and good, but Zinfandel is sexy. Zinfandel is a great spy name.
Randall Farrar
Randall Farrar

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