History of Zinfandel |
Transformation Creates New Tradition
All other significant wine varieties have their reference points in Europe, but Zinfandel established its own tradition in California and has become known as America’s Heritage wine. Zinfandel’s history is a classic All-American success story—transforming from a little-known grape into one that has achieved such tremendous popularity that it has grown on more than 50,000 acres in the United States.
Each wine reflects the personality of the region in which it is grown. Bold and celebratory, independent and unpretentious, versatile and individual, Zinfandel has charted a course all its own, epitomizing the “New World.” Experimentation as well as careful research and cultivation has led to ingenuity in vineyards and wineries, resulting in the production of Zinfandel wines that range from lighter blush wines and sparkling rosés to sophisticated red table wines and rich ports. Zinfandel is thought to be one of the oldest grape varietals from which wine is still being made. Research conducted by UC Davis viticulturists has given insight into the history of the grape. The Primitivo grape in Puglia, Italy, was found to be genetically identical to Zinfandel; however, Italians were sure it was not one of their traditional varietals. Historically, Croatia has had several indigenous varieties related to Zinfandel, but lost were lost in the late 19th century.
One well-documented route of Zinfandel to California indicates that the grape came from an Austrian collection, and it is possible that Austria obtained the vines during its rule over Croatia. It wasn’t until 2001 that researchers discovered just nine remaining vines of locally-known “Crljenak Kaštelanski” on Croatia’s Dalmation coast. DNA fingerprinting confirms that the ancient Croatian variety has the same DNA structure as California Zinfandel.
Historians have traced Zinfandel’s roots in the United States back to the 1820s, when cuttings from the Imperial collection of plant species in Vienna, Austria, were imported. By 1832, a Boston nursery was advertising “Zinfendal” vines for sale, and sometime between 1835 and 1845 “Zinfandel” had become a popular grape in the Northeastern United States. Later, vines were transported west during the Gold Rush of the 1840s, where production surged because the grapes could be easily cultivated using the traditional European “head pruning” technique, requiring no special equipment or scarce resources like wire and timber. Zinfandel’s appeal soared during this time because it grew vigorously and provided miners with a versatile, substantial beverage.
Zinfandel’s expansion in the 20th century is a testament to its hardy constitution. While most of California’s vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera in the late 1800s, Zinfandel vines were among the first vines replanted on rootstock starting around 1885. By mid-century it had become the most important varietal among California red table wines. The wave of blush wines in the 1970s began when California wineries began to draw free-run juice from Zinfandel grapes, fermenting it as “white” Zinfandel. This started a trend that led to the preservation of old Zinfandel vines, which may otherwise have been lost through grafting over to other varietals at a time when red table wines waned in popularity.
The 1990s brought a focus on research and the involvement of Zinfandel enthusiasts in a movement to celebrate and promote the varietal. By the end of the decade, Zinfandel had become competitive in the world market, proving to an international audience that America could produce fine red table wines comparable to their European counterparts.
Meanwhile, advocates and producers continue to expand their efforts, creating a movement dedicated to advancing the appreciation of Zinfandel wine while preserving its rich history.