A Croatian grape that's been cultivated for hundreds, if not thousands of years, nobody's certain where Zinfandel got its name. What is certain is that this is a robust wine with two distinct faces. Zin grown in cool climates will develop more light berry flavors and an off dry character, while Zin from warmer climates will develop into a bold wine that has darker flavors of blackberry, anise, and pepper.
Originally thought to be a native grape to California, the first Zinfandel was produced in this state in the 1800s. Though genetic testing later revealed this to be false, showing instead that California Zinfandel was genetically identical to Italian Primativo, California is still the premier vintner of this varietal. Australian and Italian winemakers who make this type of wine usually label it Primativo, and though the qualities of the wine are similar, there's nothing quite like a good California Zin.
It's important to note that Zinfandel shouldn't be confused with White Zinfandel, which is stylistically an entirely different wine. White Zin, which is in fact made from the Zinfandel grape, is an off-dry to semi-sweet rose wine that gets its deep pink color from spending a little time on the dark skins of the grape during the fermentation process. While White Zinfandel is often looked down upon by self-styled serious wine drinkers, lovers of old vine Zin have this sweet pink wine to thank for their 80 to 100 year old vines. The popularity of white Zin throughout the 1900s led to many viticulturists planting extra Zinfandel vines, vines that they maintained through the decades until the dawn of the Old Vine Zin revolution towards the end of the 20th century.
Best Zinfandel Overall:
Not as popular as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Zinfandel has nonetheless made a name for itself in California viticulture. This grape accounts for around 10 percent of the total grape crop, and while the majority of this goes to making White Zin, many of the old vines have now been turned over to the production of dark, meaty red Zins. Our favorite Zins are all from California winemakers, who still dominate the Zin market. These wines are all highly rated by critics, and many have won awards in recent competitions. We also chose wines from recent vintages, as well as those that are available at retail outlets, not just direct from the winery. If you do find yourself falling for this sultry grape, a visit to wine country can introduce you to dozens more fantastic Zins that aren't readily available to the public.
Grown on vines that average at 80 years old, Turley Old Vines Zinfandel '11 is our favorite Zinfandel. It's medium bodied and complex, with notes of red berry, dark berry, spice, flowers, and licorice. The tannins are gentle, allowing the subtleties of the wine to shine through. Read Full Review
Sourced from grapes grown in Sonoma's Alexander and Dry Creek valleys, Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel '12 shows off the best of both sides of Zin. It's big and jammy, with intense berry flavor, and rich and earthy, with notes of mineral, spice, and herb, as well as chewy, dusty tannins. Read Full Review
For those who may shy from the bold, earthy notes that can present in many Zins, Broc Cellars Vine Starr Sonoma County Zinfandel '12 is a great wine to try. It's quite fruity, with a nose and flavor that's reminiscent of berry jam. Though the fruit in this wine is intense, it's also complex and well-balanced, with big tannins and notes of flowers and spice. Read Full Review
An incredibly complex wine, Hobo Branham Vineyard Rockpile Sonoma Zinfandel '11 is one of our absolute favorites. It's fruity and floral, with lots of jam on both the nose and the palate. Though it starts off on the sweet side, it finishes nice and clean, leaving behind only a tannic dryness and a trace of clean stone. Read Full Review
One of the most approachable Zinfandels around, Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Zinfandel is one of our favorites. It's fruity and earthy, with notes of blueberry, cherry, fig, vanilla, and spicy pepper. Since this is a non-vintage wine, it's also one of the most dependable, changing very little in flavor and complexity from year to year. Read Full Review
Best Zinfandel under $20:
A bold wine that's best enjoyed young, Zinfandel doesn't require the lengthy aging that a good Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon would require. Additionally, the grapes mature early on in the season (which is why the Italians named the grape "Primativo") and can be harvested before end of year challenges, such as soaring temperatures, ruin the harvest. As a result, it's not as expensive to produce Zinfandel wines. This good news means that there's no shortage of excellent Zinfandel for under $20. Our favorite Zins are taken from recent harvests, from years that were noted for producing some of the best new wines. These Zins are also popular with wine enthusiasts and many have received high ratings from professional critics.
An award winning wine that delivers with big flavor and heavy-duty tannins Fiddletown Old Vine Zinfandel '11 is our favorite. It has notes of blackberry, currant, and caramel that are well-balanced by a lot of acidity and big, bold tannins. Read Full Review
Far and away one of the best values when it comes to Zin, Twisted Old Vine Zinfandel '11 is one of our Best Picks. This wine is medium bodied, with lots of big berry flavors and spicy pepper both on the nose and the palate. Read Full Review
If you like your Zins bold and spicy, Brazin (B)Old Vine Zinfandel '11 is the perfect choice. This wine is made from grapes grown in warm Lodi, and has pronounced flavors of chocolate, plum, and spice. The tannins are big but not overwhelming, making this an approachable wine that pairs well with any meat dish. Read Full Review
Made from dry-farmed grapes grown in the Sierra Foothills, Four Vines Maverick '10 is one of our Best Picks when it comes to Zinfandels for under $20. It has big fruit flavors of blueberry, blackberry, and boysenberry that are perfectly complemented by notes of cinnamon, licorice, and black pepper. Read Full Review
Another one of our Best Picks when it comes to Zinfandels for less than $20 is Valley of the Moon Zinfandel '10. This wine is well-balanced, with a medium body, plenty of soft tannins, and the perfect blend of fruity and spicy notes. It's an excellent all-around wine that can be paired with a wide variety of meals. Read Full Review