February 12, 2013
Here Come The Zins
Red, white or rosé, Zinfandel will be front and centre at this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival.
BY JOHN SCHREINER
Consumers would hardly buy a wine called Tribidrag if the Liquor Distribution Branch were to list such a wine.
Here’s a little secret. There is plenty of Tribidrag in our wine stores – but it is called Zinfandel. It is considered an iconic California wine variety. The theme region at this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival, happening in the first week of March, is California. Many of the wineries will be pouring Zinfandel, often labelled “old vine” because some vineyards are 80 to 100 years old. The variety has been the backbone of California reds for more than a century.
Imagine my surprise when I was directed to Tribidrag when looking up Zinfandel in a massive new book by Jancis Robinson (with two colleagues), called Wine Grapes, a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours.
Tribidrag is the old Croatian name for this variety, which now is called Primitivo in Italy and Zinfandel in California. For many years, it was thought that Zinfandel cuttings were first brought to California by Agoston Haraszthy, a dashing Hungarian vintner involved in importing thousands of European grape cuttings in the 1850s.
Subsequent research has shown that he did not source any Zinfandel. The cuttings had actually been imported around 1829 by a grape grower on Long Island, New York, and the variety was grown for years as a table grape. The source of the Long Island cuttings was the Vienna nursery where authorities cultivated vines collected from the Austrian empire. In those days, Croatia was part of that vast empire. Modern DNA profiling by vine researchers has established the familial relationship between Tribidrag, Zinfandel and Primitivo.
The Zinfandel name was attached to the variety by New York nurseries; no one is quite sure why but it was certainly a better choice than the Croatian alternatives, all tongue twisters. The cuttings were brought to California from New York State in 1852 by Frederick Macondray, a grape grower as well as a sea captain who traded between the two coasts of the United States. The history is recounted succinctly on the website of Ravenswood Winery, a leading Zinfandel producer since the late 1970s.
The Ravenswood wines – three are currently listed in British Columbia – display the rich berry flavours and the juicy fullness that account for Zinfandel’s appeal. In the late 1970s, that style lost out among North American consumers after white wine became über-fashionable. California wineries fought back with so-called white Zinfandels. Rosé wines by another name, the tremendously popular white Zins prevented the uprooting of acres and acres of Zinfandel vines. Those who love old vine Zinfandel, and who doesn’t, owe a debt of gratitude to the white Zin fad.
The producers at the wine festival include Ravenswood as well as Ridge Vineyards, among the foremost champions of Zinfandel. Also at the festival is a Lodi winery called Michael David, another producer of bold reds from old vines. The owners went to Catholic schools and that inspired names for some of their wines, including Seven Deadly Zins. It is a blend from seven old plantings that packs a punch with 15 per cent alcohol.