Taste: Seeing Red

Like all fine wine grapes, zinfandel has European origins; its roots were traced recently to southern Italy’s primitivo variety, which originated along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. But zinfandel is a uniquely American wine. California is the only region that produces it.

Zinfandel’s prolific crops are no doubt responsible for its early popularity. And it was Sutter Home’s brilliant introduction in 1972 of an off-dry rosé it dubbed “white zinfandel” that led to widespread name recognition. The pale pink, strawberry-ish “blush” was an overnight sensation, but “red zin” took time to win hearts and minds. Zinfandel can produce stellar full-bodied red wines in the right conditions, and pioneers like Ridge Vineyards have now established “old vine” zinfandels, outstandingly complex wines, grown on pre-Prohibition- era vines, that are among California’s pantheon of world-class wines.

Premium zinfandel’s spicy flavors and opulent texture are ideal for rich, meaty dishes. Often extremely ripe, its aromas can evoke roasted figs and blueberry pie, and some wines retain a hint of raisin-y sweetness. Real red zinfandels are now mainstream, appearing by the glass throughout the region, from Cline at Bucks County’s Yardley Inn to Rosenblum at Krazy Kat’s outside Wilmington. But zinfandel’s affinity for grilled meats and sweet sauces makes steakhouses its home turf. A Center City “zin tour” could compare icon brands like Ravenswood at Smith & Wollensky to up-and-comers like Rancho Zabaco at the Prime Rib. But initiation into the cult will require savoring a bottle of a single-vineyard wine from mature zinfandel vines, like the Ridge “Spring Mountain” at Barclay Prime.