Friday, March 1, 9:30-11:15am
By John Schreiner

In the renewed interest in Zinfandel wines, California vintners have the significant advantage of producing Old Zines Zinfandel, wines of depth and complexity from vineyards more than 100 years old.

A tasting panel at the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival celebrated Old Vines Zinfandel – and discussed the varietal’s roots in Croatia.

“I hope there is a good future for high quality Zinfandel,” said Robert Mondavi winemaker Mark de Vere. “If we had been tasting a flight of Cabernet Sauvignons of a similar quality level, you would have been looking at prices two or three times higher. You can get interesting wines that are much more affordable than the more prestigious Cabernet Sauvignons we produce in California.”

Zinfandel has long been regarded as California’s grape because more acreage of the variety grows in that state than anywhere else in the world.

“Zinfandel is a grape that came to California really early – 1852,” said Joel Peterson, who founded Ravenswood Winery in 1976 to make wines from the grape. “In a very short time [after the varietal arrived in California], it was the most planted grape in the state. There were about 34,000 acres of Zinfandel planted by 1888. It was the right grape in the right place and it met the needs of California farmers.”

That vast acreage meant that numerous vineyards survived Prohibition, enabling the California wine industry to get back on its feet in 1933. E & J Gallo, now California’s largest winery, used Zinfandel in a successful blend (still being made) called Hearty Burgundy.

“I got to work with vineyards that were way older than I was,” Peterson said of Ravenswood. “They were vineyards that usually were planted in the 1880s, 1890s, early 1900s. That was the time they were replanting after phylloxera. They were vineyards that had the characteristics suitable for great European vineyards. They were planted in the right place because all the ones that were planted in the wrong place got taken out during Prohibition. They had the right crop levels – two to two and a half tons an acre – and they were often dry-farmed, which kept the clusters small and the flavours intense.”

Today, numerous other California wineries are also producing Old Vines Zinfandel. There is no regulated definition of Old Vines but it is generally accepted that such vineyards should be at least 50 years old. Plenty of serious Zinfandel wines also come from well-managed younger plantings.

At one time, it was believed that the varietal was indigenous to California. That was clearly erroneous because Zinfandel is a vinifera grape – and vinifera is not native to North America.

Where did Zinfandel originate? The answer was provided about 20 years when Mike Grgich, the founder of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa, encouraged the University of California Davis to do the genetic work that linked Zinfandel to Croatia.

Grgich was born in Croatia. As soon as he arrived in California, he was struck by the similarity in appearance of Zinfandel vines to Tribidrag, a native Croatian varietal closely related to Zinfandel.

“It was a very prestigious grapes in the Middle Ages in Dalmatia and in the Adriatic region,” winemaker De Vere said. “In California, Tribidrag is not listed as a legal synonym. Zinfandel is the legal variety in California.” In spite of that Grgich Hills recently imported some Tribidrag vines from Croatia (where Grgich also has a winery).

There are other varietal names in the tangled history of Zinfandel. The precise genetic work by UCDavis also linked Zinfandel to Crljenak Kaštelanksi. That particular varietal was down to nine vines when the UCDavis studies found it in Croatia. There is a cousin in Croatian vineyards called Plavac Mali. In southern Italia, Zinfandel is called Primitivo.

“The oldest reference we have to Tribidrag is the commercial sale of a barrel of wine from Croatia to Puglia in 1488,” Peterson said. “That was before Columbus came to the New World. It is a really old grape.”

How the variety ended up in California is a bit uncertain. The original vines to grow on American soil were planted in a nursery in New York early in the 19th Century, likely from cuttings from the Imperial nursery in Vienna. The Austrian empire then included Croatia.

“There is something about the variety in that it has longevity, which not all varieties have,” winemaker De Vere said. “When Zinfandel is young, it can be very high yielding. As yields start to decline with age, some varieties get pulled out.  A lot of the old families that own these Zinfandel vines have still been getting commercially viable crops. They did not have the necessity of pulling them out. Then, when people recognized the value of old vines, it was recognized that it is harder to get a great wine from a young Zinfandel vine because of its tendency to crop highly. If you have the gift of an old vine where the yields are naturally reduced, that is where the quality comes from.”

He continued: “One of the great gifts of Zinfandel is that you can deliver a full-bodied, rich wine with a relatively smooth palate feel as compared with Cabernet Sauvignon.