Red wines from California have long been go-to choices for consumers and industry folk alike. However, in comparison to the world’s love for cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and merlot, zinfandel often finds itself on the backburner—though contrary to popular belief, this iconic variety occupies some of the country’s oldest and most historic vineyard sites.
Zinfandel vines are some of the oldest in all of America, which frequently translates to low yields, high quality, and concentrated fruit (when produced at the hands of the right winemakers, of course). Curious to learn more? We took to the pros to feature our top-quality Zinfandel picks, perfect for diving into all that the variety has to offer.
Bedrock Old Vine Zinfandel 2019
Region: Sonoma, California | ABV: 14.4% | Tasting Notes: Raspberry compote, Tobacco, Smoky vanilla
In the world of zinfandel, nothing holds a candle to Bedrock’s Old Vine expression—and the pros agree. Factoring taste, quality, and price, the wine is truly one of the best deals on the market. Most of the fruit for this wine comes from estate vineyards planted in 1888, 1896, 1905, and 1915. Post native yeast fermentation, the wine ages in a combination of French and Austrian barrels, 10% of which are new. Best of all, according to the winery, 2019 is one of the finest vintages they’ve ever made. Flavors of raspberry compote, black plums, tobacco leaf, and a touch of smoky vanilla ooze from the wine’s concentrated, well-balanced palate.
Brandon Borcoman, founder of Vin Decision, reveals that his “unequivocal support” goes to Bedrock Wine Co. “Not only have they reignited an interest (now a passion) for zinfandel as a variety, but they have also done a terrific job at highlighting the heritage of California in general,” he says. Borcoman describes the ability to buy a bottle of their Old Vine Zinfandel for under $30, produced from vines well over 100 years old, as “mind-boggling.” “This is one of my favorite wines to bring to clients because it not only exceeds expectations, but it also allows Zinfandel to shine in all its beauty. Kudos to Bedrock for all they are doing, but also rock on California for continually beguiling us wine drinkers.”
“Old vines are magical! Not only does this wine come from super old vines it’s also made with native yeasts, whole clusters, and a super soft hand. The resulting wine has so much energy, you can almost taste the history in the glass.” — David Bruno, founder of Départ Wine in Great Barrington, Mass
Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel
Region: Central Coast, California | ABV: 15% | Tasting Notes: Strawberry jam, Cinnamon, Vanilla
Fred Cline inherited his passion for farming from his grandfather, Valeriano Jacuzzi, on their Oakley-based farm. At the time, this area was home to many immigrants who farmed some of the oldest original vines in California. Over the past few decades, Fred has restored his head-pruned vines in Oakley back to dry farming, allowing their roots to grow deeply into the area's sandy soils. This delicious wine comes from some of the family’s oldest (100+ year old) vines. Fruit ferments in temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks and aged for 12 months in American oak prior to bottling. Expect flavors of strawberry jam, cinnamon, vanilla, and light toast.
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Best Under $20
Pedroncelli ‘Mother Clone’ Zinfandel
Region: Sonoma, California | ABV: 14.8% | Tasting Notes: Dark berries, Black pepper, Smoky oak
Pedroncelli 'Mother Clone' Zinfandel is produced at the hands of John Pedroncelli Jr, whose father and uncle founded the winery back in 1927 (during the heart of Prohibition!) By the time Prohibition ended, Pedroncelli was just one of four operating wineries in the Dry Creek Valley. 90 years later, the family is still kicking. Mother Clone Zinfandel is their answer to juicy, concentrated-yet-restrained red wine. Expect flavors of dark berries, black pepper, and a touch of smoky oak. Smooth tannins and energetic acid lead to a lingering, palate-coating finish.
David DeSimone, Pittsburgh-based wine writer and radio host, shares his love for Pedroncelli’s ‘Mother Clone’ zinfandel. “The rootstock goes back to the winery's founding in the 1920's by Italian immigrants, and [drinking] it always reminds of those old vines, located on the gentle slopes surrounding the winery,” he says. DeSimone notes that the wine delivers flavors of ripe fruit balanced by a touch of spice.
Martha Stoumen Young Vines 2019
Region: Mendocino County, California | ABV: 12.5% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, White peach, Citrus
Who says that all zinfandel is big, bold, and concentrated? For natural wine lovers looking for a tasty and restrained solution, Martha Stoumen has the answer. Her young vine red is produced from organically-farmed fruit grown in Mendocino County, from dry-farmed and head-trained vines planted in 1948. Inspired by the great wines of the Northern Rhone, Stoumen crafted this 99% zinfandel with a touch of vermentino, similar to the way Rhone winemakers add a touch of viognier to their hearty, syrah-based reds. “While the white grape vermentino is not quite the aromatic powerhouse that viognier is, it subtly lends a petit element to this blend of zinfandel-related clones,” she says on her website.
Expect flavors of blackberry, baking spice, white peach skin, and orange rind. Stoumen’s wine clocks in at a modest 12.5% ABV and boasts just 26 total milligrams of sulfur. Pair with BBQ favorites, curries, or a slew of Mediterranean-inspired mezze.
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Grgich Hills Zinfandel
Region: Napa, California | ABV: 15.5% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, Sweet clove, Citrus
Although best known for their rich and ripe cabernet sauvignon-based wines, when produced at the right hands, zinfandel from Napa should not be overlooked. These wines offer just as much flavor-packed drinkability as their cabernet counterparts, though generally at a fraction of the price. Grgich Hills Zinfandel is produced from organically farmed fruit in the heart of Calistoga. Here, vines benefit from optimal sunlight and are rooted into gravelly loam soils.
Their 100% zinfandel ferments with native yeasts and is aged for 18 months in neutral French oak. Flavors of blackberry, boysenberry, sweet clove, and a touch of citrus jump from the wine’s concentrated, full-bodied core. Pair with a variety of foods, including burgers, roast lamb, and all things barbecue.
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Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel
Region: Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma), California | ABV: 14.1% | Tasting Notes: Ripe berries, Earth, Dried flowers, Smoke
This iconic zinfandel comes from one of California’s most renowned producers. Crafted in the heart of Sonoma County, this zinfandel-dominant blend (72%) is rounded out with petite sirah, carignane, and mourvedre (mataro). Medium-bodied and bright, the wine jumps with juicy flavors of ripe berries, damp earth, dried flowers, and sweet spice.
Borcoman notes that Ridge first released its Lytton Springs bottling back in 1972. “Although the ‘70s weren't a golden decade in California, Ridge maintained prestige throughout it, continually placing an emphasis on the mineral possibility of the variety,” he says. Borcoman describes the wine as full of brilliant, juicy fruit, yet also incredibly well-balanced, with traces of earth, pepper, and smoke.
“This is unmistakably a nod to California's grandeur from arguably one of the state's most important stalwarts." — Brandon Borcoman, founder of Vin Decision
Best White Zinfandel
Monte Rio Cellars Dry White Zinfandel
Region: North Coast, California | ABV: 11% | Tasting Notes: Red fruit, Rhubarb, Citrus
Forget the white zinfandel of your grandparents’ past. Once known for its cloyingly sweet and unbalanced flavor profile, White zinfandel is coming back with a bang—and producers like Patrick Cappiello of Monte Rio Cellars are fostering its rebirth.
Fruit for this wine comes from Suisun Valley, located due east of Napa. The site was planted in 1998 and has recently fully transitioned to full organic farming. Grapes were harvested and quickly crushed prior to pressing, then fermented in a combination of concrete tanks and eggs. The wine was then aged for four months in old wood barrels, racked to steel tanks, and bottled soon after. Expect flavors of crunchy red fruits, rhubarb, and a touch of citrus to dominate this wine’s bone dry palate.
Best Food Pairing
Seghesio Old Vines Zinfandel
Region: Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma), California | ABV: 15.6% | Tasting Notes: Bing cherry, cedar, cigar box
Full-bodied Zinfandels often scream for hearty food to pair with them, and when it comes to finding a delicious option to bring to the table, Seghesio has a great lineup of wines. Fruit for this Old Vine cuvée comes from head-pruned vineyards in Sonoma’s Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys, both of which have been farmed by the Passalacqua and Saini families for decades. The wine’s concentrated and intense palate oozes with flavors of bing cherries, cedar, cigar box, and a touch of licorice. Velvety tannins and a soft mouthfeel lead to a lasting, full-bodied finish. Pair with rustic stews, smoked meats, or a variety of BBQ favorites.
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Three Wine Company Old Vine Zinfandel
Region: Contra Costa (Central Coast), California | ABV: 15.4% | Tasting Notes: Berry compote, Cherry, Baking spice
Hailing from Contra Costa County, this ripe yet balanced red wine is perfect for sipping chilled with a variety of foods. Produced from old vines, this zinfandel-dominant blend (76%) is rounded out with smatterings of carignane, petite sirah, and alicante bouschet, each of which adds something unique to the assemblage. Vines average over 100 years old and are still dry farmed today. Flavors of berry compote, cherry coulis, and baking spice dominate the wine’s full-bodied, flavor-packed palate.
Caroline Coral, operations manager at Swigg Real Wine, Craft Beer & Spirits, can’t get enough of this wine. “Three Zinfandel is the work of famed winemaker Matt Cline. His dedication to sustainable, terroir driven wines sets this Zin apart,” she explains. Rather than creating a big and bold wine simply for “big’s sake,” Coral notes that Cline’s ancient vine zinfandel remains balanced, mainly due to the thoughtful addition of other grape varieties.
Most zinfandel-based wines are full-bodied, juicy, and high in alcohol, and lovers of flavor-packed reds will likely enjoy them, especially those made from well-reputed producers. There are indeed rare exceptions to this statement (see the Best Natural category from Martha Stoumen), however, note the emphasis on the word rare. Zinfandel-based wines are ideal for sipping along hearty cuisine, as their flavor profiles (and high ABVs) tend to pack a serious punch.
Is zinfandel grown outside of California?
Yes! However, in other parts of the world, the grape is referred to by different names. DNA research has shown that the zinfandel grape is genetically the same as Italy’s primitivo grape, as well as the Croatian varieties of Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag.
Where is Zinfandel originally from?
Although the history is long debated, it is believed that zinfandel (Crljenak Kaštelanski) finds its origins in Croatia.
What is white zinfandel?
White zinfandel is a blush wine produced from the zinfandel variety. The wine is often produced using the saignée (bleeding) method of producing rosé, meaning that the wine is a byproduct of red zinfandel wine. During the red wine’s vinification process, some of the wine is removed and bottled on its own, meaning that it sees less maceration time and has a pink hue. However, white zinfandel is often chemically altered and has tons of sugar added to it, hence its negative perception amongst wine consumers and industry alike.
Are all zinfandel-based wines full bodied and high in alcohol?
No, not necessarily. Winemakers like Martha Stoumen produce lighter-bodied, restrained styles of the wine. However, it’s safe to say that the majority of zinfandel-based wines are full-bodied, fruit-driven, and rather high in alcohol.
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Vicki Denig is a wine, spirits, and travel journalist who splits her time between New York and Paris. Her work regularly appears in major industry publications. She is the content creator and social media manager for a list of prestigious clients, including Sopexa, Paris Wine Company, Becky Wasserman, Volcanic Selections, Le Du’s Wines, Windmill Wine & Spirits and Corkbuzz. She is a Certified Specialist of Wine.
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