For many years, California Zinfandel was the secret tip among red-wine fanatics who weren’t obsessed with pedigree. The grape varietal earned its reputation for powerful, concentrated reds that sold for a fraction of the price of a decent Cabernet Sauvignon.
|Zinfandel vines in Sonoma county, California|
Mystery surrounds Zinfandel’s viticultural identity. One theory traced its origin to a Croatian varietal called Plavac Mali. Research now suggests they are closely related but not the same. In 1994, DNA fingerprinting showed that Zinfandel is identical to Primitivo, a grape growing in Apulia, Italy. Yet historical records indicate that Zin’s California presence preceded the first documented planting of Italian Primitivo.
Numerous coveted, old-vine Zinfandel parcels are still owned by grape-grower families with surnames such as Sangiacomo, Tedeschi, Luvisi and Martini.
Twenty years ago, the Zinfandel grape attracted iconoclasts among winemakers and drinkers who did not care about noble lineage, as long as the wine was breathtaking. The grapes sold cheaply. Small wineries with artisan ethics but not much cash could afford superb Zin fruit.
Yet many ambitious California winemakers fixated on French benchmarks. As recently as the 1980s, Sonoma and Napa landowners dug up stubby, gnarled, old Zinfandel vines to plant Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ancient Zinfandel vineyards are unique to California. They resemble a weather-beaten, miniature orchard. The vines are “head-pruned,” an old European method that trains the vine to grow in a goblet shape, so it requires no wire trellis.
An “old vines” designation on Zinfandel bottles generally indicates the wine comes from vines over 50 years of age. Some vineyards are between 80- and 100-years-old or older. The typical yield for old, dry-farmed (unirrigated) vines is a scant 31/2 to 71/2 tons per hectare. Among vintners and fans, such fruit is renowned for its intense flavor.
When Cabernet Sauvignon prices climbed in the early ’90s, consumers discovered other Big Reds. Zinfandel is no longer a secret. Growers seeking to cash in on the Zin craze now coax 30 tons or more per hectare from young, irrigated Central Valley vineyards. The resulting bulk wines often taste thin and dilute.
Five years ago, Zinfandel was still scarce in Tokyo. These days, it appears almost everywhere. But has Zin stayed true to its roots as an affordably priced spicy red wine of depth? This week, we blind-tasted five Zinfandels under 3,000 yen to find out.
The 1998 Diverso Primitivo (1,300 yen at Wine Market Party in Ebisu;  5424-2580) from Apulia’s Salento region is least expensive, although it is too stingy with flavor to be a bargain. Pale and dilute, with searing acidity (“cranberry concentrate, sour apples and Tabasco”), it’s a miss.
The tasting’s priciest bottle also disappointed. The 1998 Titus Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel (2,980 yen; Party) has deep color and plum, earth and spice aromas. But its thin flavors (“coffee, prunes and pepper”) are overwhelmed by mouth-parching tannins. California’s 1998 vintage was patchy, and this wine does not represent one of its redeeming moments.
We fared better with the 1997 Robert Mondavi North Coast Zinfandel (1,950 yen at National Azabu;  3442-3181). This lighter, tangy Zin style (almost reminiscent of a Chianti) makes a good picnic wine.
The 1998 Rabbit Ridge Sonoma County Zinfandel (2,230 yen at Nissin World Delicatessen;  3583-4586) is a more classic, ripe interpretation of Zinfandel. A sip evokes blackberries, mocha, rum and sweet, dark chocolate.
The 1998 Francis Coppola Diamond Series Zinfandel (2,050 yen; Party) was the tasting favorite. The color of black plums, it has cherry jam, eucalyptus and potpourri aromas. We relished the blackberry, espresso and cinnamon flavors in this Zinfandel that combines pleasure with affordability.