Wine servers have been trained to ask the question when a customer who seems a little shaky on their wine knowledge asks for a glass of Zinfandel.
“Do you mean WHITE Zinfandel?”
In most cases, they do. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Zinfandel’s identity crisis.
As we’ve discussed online and in The Grapevine, Zinfandel is among the world’s most versatile winegrapes. It can be made into a dry red wine, a sweet dessert-style wine, a Port-style wine or a blush wine (the ubiquitous White Zinfandel). And depending on the alcohol level determined by the vintner, even an individual style of Zinfandel can vary widely in aroma, flavor and mouthfeel.
In recent years, as genetic “fingerprinting” has become more reliable and more widely used in nurseries and vineyards around the world, another layer has been added to Zinfandel’s identity crisis.
In many of California’s “heritage” Zinfandel vineyards, particularly those whose planting pre-dated Prohibition, genetic science has proven what old-time farmers have always known: Some Zinfandel vineyards actually include a number of black grape varieties in addition to Zin.
This mix of vines is referred to as a “field blend,” and most vintners who work with the fruit from such vineyards believe that the resulting wines are more complex and interesting than 100-percent Zinfandel bottlings.
So what’s the problem? When genetic fingerprinting shows that less than 75 percent of the fruit used to make a “field blend” wine is Zinfandel, that wine may not, by law, be labeled as Zinfandel.
The only answer for the wineries is to develop a “proprietary name” or simply use a phrase such as “Red Blend” on the label.
If you ever encounter such a wine, try it. It may not taste exactly like a Zinfandel you’ve tasted in the past, but it most likely will be every bit as good – whatever “good” may mean to you.