When I was new to wine-writing, I remember going to a tasting and pronouncing it “zinfandle”. “Zinfan-dell!” a supercilious colleague corrected me, and I felt like falling through the floor. And that still makes me feel particularly sympathetic to people who pronounce grape and wine names incorrectly. I mean, why would they know and does it even matter? It’s just another example of the kind of one-upmanship that has beset the wine industry for years, and accounts for its reputation for snobbishness.
That said, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for zin (that’s one way to get around the pronunciation problem), something of a signature US grape variety. While you can get practically every other wine that California produces more cheaply elsewhere (pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon from Chile, for example), no one else (or practically no one) does zinfandel.
I say practically, because it’s the same grape as Puglia’s primitivo and Croatia’s crljenak kaštelanski (now that’s a name to conjure with). However, California produces more of the stuff than anywhere else in the world, and most of it comes from the vast Lodi region, which produces about 25% of all the state’s wine. For this reason alone, it tends to be dismissed out of hand, but it does actually produce some more than decent reds.
Zinfandel has always been a bit macho – when I started out in the 90s, it was known as killer zin and can easily hit 15%, but at its best, it can also be seductively rich, brambly and elegant. There’s a new wave of zinfandels that are aged in bourbon barrels and that carry on that macho image, which I don’t much care for myself, but you might. If the thought appeals, try the 1,000 Stories Bourbon Barrel-Aged Gold Rush Red 2019 (£15.99 Waitrose Cellar, £13.50 Ocado, on offer, down from £16, 14.5%).
Zinfandel is also a really good companion to Italian-American food: spaghetti and meatballs, or just plain spaghetti, lasagne, pizza, eggplant (AKA aubergine) parmigiana – in fact, almost anything tomatoey and cheesy. And, as we head into autumn, it also works well with more cold-weather dishes: duck or pot-roast pheasant, say, or a hearty beef casserole or a chilli, or a cheeseboard. Or even on its own: it’s a comforting, by-the-fire sort of red.
While I’m on the subject, it’s also worth mentioning white zin (don’t groan!). Tesco stocks the 10.5% Sundown Beach California White Zinfandel 2022 for a fiver that is actually rather good (though I’d suggest serving it well-chilled with a strawberry cheesecake rather than anything savoury). There are more expensive, stylish-looking ones out there, but honestly they’re no better, or no worse, depending on your point of view.
Five zinfandels that are worth a try
Definition Zinfandel 2020 £10.99 (or £7.99 on mix-six) Majestic, 14.5%. A really good example of Lodi zin and, on the mix-six deal, brilliant value (but buy the 2020).
Carnivor California Zinfandel 2021 £9 (on offer, down from £10.50) Sainsbury’s and Ocado, £10 Tesco, £10.50 Morrisons, 14.5%. With that name, I wasn’t expecting much, but this is surprisingly lush and well-made. And a very fair price.
Matt Parish The 24 Contra Costa County Zinfandel 2021 £18.99 (or £13.99 to Naked Wines ‘Angels’), 14.5%. That £18.99 is pushing it, but if you’re a so-called ‘Angel’, £13.99 is a steal for this beautifully crafted zin from a winemaker who used to work for the iconic Stags’ Leap winery in the Napa Valley.
• For more by Fiona Beckett, go to fionabeckett.substack.com