Week 5 – Zinfandel / Primitivo

Tasting notes

Emma says: “I’m intrigued to see how this week goes, because on a personal note I don’t ever remember really enjoying Zinfandel. It is that sort of lusty bold red that I really don’t get.

A bit of a problem child as a grape because it needs a really hot climate to get ripe and then ripens unevenly, so you can get sweet raisin grapes and green un ripe ones in the same bunch. For me that means it can be jammy and sort of green tasting at the same time.  Not a great combination. Then it easily reaches high alcohol, and since I’m on the petite side that extra % or two of alcohol can make all the difference the day after.

But that is the pleasure of this journey. Bring it on. Let’s find a Zinfandel I love. So we choose a slightly pricey one, Edmeades from Mendocino County in California. On the first sniff it is definitely Zin, slightly spirit-y in fragrance (=alcohol) with very ripe raspberry and cherry fruit but actually there is a nice perfume to it and it feels surprisingly fresh rather than pruney. Good start. To taste it silky textured and smooth with more of that candied cherry and luscious strawberry fruit, it is balancing on a fine thread to being jammy, but hanging in there well. I’m feeling that 15% alcohol but not it isn’t vicious and there is a nice gentle cocoa powder twist from oak.

So I think the learning for me is that if I drink Zinfandel it is going to have to be the pricey stuff. Before now I’ve tended to drink Lodi region Zinfandel which is the biggest commercial area for this grape and those wines have been richer and heavier without the finesse of this one we’ve tried. Mendocino area benefits from cooling coastal breezes which is perhaps the secret of its finesse; Russian river Zins share that character. The other thing to look out for on the label if you do like Zin is “old vine”. This was one of the original planted grapes of California but a lot was pulled up in favour of more famous red grapes. Those old vines have far better balance in the way they produce fruit and so tend to produce the best and most complex styles of Zin.

Oh and if you are trying Primitivo instead of Zin, that is the style I typically favour. It has that pruney intensity but I like more earthy, savoury profile that mingles into the fruit and gives it a different dimension. So I hope you find that difference if you are going Italian this week.”

Andy says: “Let’s get one thing straight: My wine vocabulary is limited. I can sort of recognise tastes and smells, but then struggle to put a name to them. I guess that’s what happens when your diet consists mainly of crisps, chips and pizza.

But, one of the reasons for doing 52 grapes is to help me work out what people mean when they say they can taste leather, petrol, arsenic, or some other thing that would kill you if you actually knew what it tasted like. You know, like Tide pods.
So the wine. On the nose, it’s a bit shoe polish, high notes, and if you take a big old sniff it hits you right between the eyes. Tasting again a day later, that’s softened a bit. It’s 15%, so I’m assuming it’s the alcohol. Watch this space for Emma telling me why it’s not that.
Taste wise, the label says Graham Crackers (no idea, it’s something American), cherry (yep, ok, I’ll give you that), blackberry (never knowingly had one – more childhood issues), and dark chocolate (maybe). For me, mild tannins (only a slight tongue grip), and quite dry. Did I like it? Yes – but I’d like to try it at a lower ABV.”

Buying Guide

This buying guide is the trickiest so far.

Zinfandel and Primitivo are genetically the same grape. The former is mostly found in California producing ripe fruity styles that are heady and full bodied. The latters is a classic from Italy, normally in the southern Puglia region where the intense sun produces rich, fruity and concentrated styles. The thing is the results are dramatically different. For me the Zins are the more straightforward – fruity, even jammy styles. The Primitivo is more classic in the mix of rich raisiny fruit and leathery, savoury undertones. They are equal in quality, so I’m struggling to decide which one we should taste.

Since I’ve tasted a lot of Primitivo recently through work, I’m going to plump for a Californian Zinfandel. But I really am tempted to buy one of each, although I’ve been promising Andy that I’ll stop doing that…

Please note – this is not a White Zinfandel, you’re looking for a red wine. White Zinfandel is the pink version and is basically the Coca Cola of the wine world. It doesn’t really taste of the base grape because the vines used have massive yields, producing watery flavoured grapes. To be pink it has very short contact with the skin, and that’s where most of the flavour sits. Then to finish it off they chuck a load of sugar at it before bottling. I’m not trying to trash talk White Zinfandel, many people love it, but it really has little to do with the grape, and our mission here is to try to taste the best example of the basic grape flavour.

Head to the red wine section where Californian or American wines are located. Then look for a Zinfandel which is normally marked clearly on the front label. And remember – it’s a red wine!

13 thoughts to “Week 5 – Zinfandel / Primitivo”

  1. (catch-up!)

    Couldn’t decide between the two, so got a bottle of each.

    Wine 1 – Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel 2014 (Majestic £14)
    Bottle says – Black cherry, strawberry, dark chocolate

    On the nose, the black cherry stood out, along with the dark chocolate and a general backdrop of black fruit.
    The strawberries came out in the tasting, and I also got more of a red fruit feel in general, with hints of liquorice and wet leaves.

    Wine 2 -Surani Costarossa 2015 Primitivo di Manduria, (Majestic £10)
    Bottle says – waffle

    This wine smelt a lot fresher, with red fruits dominating the nose, especially strawberries. I also got the hard to describe straw/hay/farm smell you sometimes get.
    The taste was mainly of red fruits, again, with strawberry dominating. This wine was very simple, open and honest, and did it’s job really well, presuming that it’s job was to smell and taste like strawberries.

    Overall, the Zin was a far more complex wine, and the one I would have picked, but I would happily purchase both of them again.

  2. Hi! I know I’m a bit late commenting on this wine… Anyway, you know how sometimes when someone says “don’t do … ” you find yourself doing it?
    White zin is absolutely dreadful. Liquefied bubblegum.

  3. I am in catch up mode so grabbed a bottle of Zinfandel this afternoon. Sorry again Emma, but I just didn’t have time to dive into M&S, but Waitrose didn’t have a single example of Zin or Primitivo so I called in at Bargain Booze on the way home.
    They had a cheapie at £6.99 and an expensive one at £9.99 but I opted for the £6.99 2015 Beringer at an exciting 14.5%.

    The wine is clean and bright and, frankly, what I would imagine to be the colour of the grapes from which it was pressed. Lovely!

    The nose is delightfully complex. Rich, jammy (but quality jam), with a hint of cabbages and pepper.

    So with all this going for it surely the palate must be good? Yup, spot on. A good mouthful of meaty and jammy blackcurrant flavours. Did I get a hint of scorched wood and coffee? Light tannin and a nice prickly on the side of the tongue.

    Fruity tannins on the good long finish.

    Really enjoyed it. Made me recall Ruby Cabernet; different I know but very satisfying.

  4. Frogs Leap Zinfandel 2014 Gonzales Vineyard, Napa Valley. Love those Zins with pizza, chili and the like. This wine had a nice ruby color with a berry nose. Medium body with nice tannins, hints of pepper/spice with a subtle fruit finish. Would recommend this wine.

  5. Yet another surprise1 I tasted Zinfandel from De Loach vineyard California , and found it a very nice smooth wine with a strong flavour of black cherries and slightly sweet
    This wine is quite light in colour, so I really didn’t expect it to have such a smooth flavour
    A friend who tasted this wine thought it was Ribena for Adults !!

  6. Zinfandel went through a long phase of super ripe, overly alcoholic, and pruned raisin styled wines. Too bad, IMHO, as Zinfandel is much better with a little pull-back on ripeness. Thankfully more producers are making less fruit-bomb styled wines now.
    One of the current trends I’m loving in California is field blends with Zinfandel as a dominant variety. Many of the old vine Zin vineyards were planted by immigrants from the old country, and they threw other cuttings in there too. Ridge has made field blends for a while (i.e. Lytton Springs) but now others are making new, and great, ones, like Morgan Twain Peterson at Bedrock. Search them out – they’re fantastic and some of the only California wines I still buy. Yumm, yumm!

    1. Ah, great to have a proper Californian wine expert involved. That is nice background to have. Old vines always seem to produce these sort of reds with better balance to them so that makes sense. And Ridge is a fantastic winery. I’ll need to see if I can find Bedrock too. Loving the way this experience is helping me to learn new things too…

  7. This weekend I took a wide range of red wines to Center Parcs (glamorous I know, but helped me relax after crazy days catching my son at the end of a waterslide), and one of them was from The Wine Society – The Society’s Exhibition Napa Valley Zinfandel 2015.

    The wine was produced by John Williams at Frogs Leap, in the heart of Napa Valley’s Rutherford district. Firstly I was surprised not to have my head blown off by a high alcohol Zinfandel – it was 13.5%. With a little research I found John’s approach ‘is quite simple: native yeasts, very little new oak and gentle extraction which results in a style with remarkable balance and alcohol that never exceeds 14%’ – perfect!

    Shared with friends (and Karen, my wife – who’s enjoying 52 grapes, even if she isn’t blogging) this wine was elegant, medium bodied, balanced and smooth. Very fruity – plums, brambles and black cherry ( i think – it was 2nd or 3rd bottle of Red that evening)

    We drank this after dinner so didn’t manage the suggested food pairing of beef, beef curry or beef stroganoff. However I have to say this was rather pleasing without food. At £16 its not cheap but good value for money

    1. Hi there,

      Great to hear you’ve managed to keep up with 52 grapes despite being on holiday. Frog’s Leap is a great winery, I do love their Cabernet too. I haven’t tried their Zin yet but your note makes me want to. It sounds nice and elegant and that alcohol is definitely a surprise. One for the list…

  8. I slightly jumped the gun and started this week early. Well, it was a rainy weekend!

    I’ve never drunk much Californian wine so I was intrigued as to what I’d find. I tried the Brazin ‘B’ Old Wine Zinfandel 2013 from Lodi, near Sacramento (Waitrose again) and was impressed.

    At 14.5% I was expecting it to look practically black, but it was an unremarkable clear ruby colour. On the nose it was a full-on juicy hit of flowery black fruit with a hint of pepper and tobacco. On tasting it, it wasn’t the fruit bomb I’d expected but surpassingly mellow and easy to drink, despite the strength. There was a sweet fruity jaminess, a bit more tobacco, and a lovely long finish with warming vanilla. The strength came through as a nice warming glow down the throat!

    I didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. I really liked this wine – robust while being smooth and luscious. It wasn’t overly complex but hit the jammy-tobacco spot and was perfect with a rich tomato pasta source.

    1. Hey Will, sounds like you found a nice Zin then. And I totally know what you mean about the colour. Zin generally has lower tannins than other big bold reds which is why it is so smooth and easy drinking!

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