Big, bold tannin bombs, sweet and fruity blush wines, Italian Primitivo, American old vines: Zinfandel is a grape that has many labels, and bears them all well.
Zinfandel was the pride of the early, pre-Prohibition California wine industry. Like many grapes that made the trip from the old world to the new, the origins and lineage of Zinfandel were surrounded in misconception and mystery. For years Zinfandel was thought to be native to California, but modern research has showed that the grape is in fact descended from an obscure Croatian grape and is identical to the more well-known Italian grape Primitivo, which is used to make intense red wines in the warm Puglia region.
Zin often exhibits strawberry/raspberry notes, which shift into cherry when the grapes are picked later, and can have notes of anise and black pepper, or even cinnamon. Compared to its Italian brother, American Zinfandel is much more focused on fruit flavors and less on earth and spice. Though most of the original Zinfandel vines were ripped out and destroyed in favor of cheaper varieties during the prohibition, some "old vines" still remain and produce excellent wine.
The grapes can be incredibly high in sugar content, and must be managed to ensure that they do not shrivel and concentrate their sugars to an unfermentable point. Even so, Zinfandel often starts out as a very high-sugar content must, and thus results in a high-alcohol wine (up to 15%). The intensity of the alcohol flavors is tamed by the high tannin levels of the thick-skinned grapes. A good amount of aging is required before this sort of Zin is mellow enough to drink, and it is possible to lay down bottles for many years. The high sugar content of Zinfandel also contributes to the popular White Zinfandel blush wine. Originally made by accident, the blush version of Zin is very light and fruity and is a pinkish color.
Zinfandel can successfully be paired with many of the same dishes as the similarly robust Cabernet Sauvignon, such as grilled steak. It is also a good match for Indian food and heavy egg dishes.