My vote for the most unassuming grape grown in the U.S. is Zinfandel. Until recently this varietal was shrouded in mystery. What language is that name? Where did it come from? Zinfandels only come from the U.S. for the most part. As it turns out, Zinfandel may be the quintessential American grape.
In 1832 plantings from Austria, the imperial Viennese collection no less, arrived in Boston. They were purchased wholesale by nursery owner, Samuel Perkins, who promptly put a sign on his door saying “Zinfandel for sale.” No one knows why he named the shoots Zinfandel, but voila! the new grape was given a uniquely American identity.
Since then Zinfandel has left an indelible cultural stain (and I mean that in the best sense) on the U.S. wine industry. Zinfandel is a red grape, and makes bold, zesty, full-bodied premium red wines. However, by a happy accident, Zinfandel revolutionized the American wine industry in its sweet, pink embodiment as White Zinfandel.
As you may know most pink wines, blushes or rosés, and some whites are made with red grapes. The reason this is possible is that contact with the grape skins while it ferments is what gives the juice its red color. If the juice is removed from the red skins as soon as the grapes are crushed, the juice will stay clear, or “white.” If the juice gets to stay on the skins for a few hours, but not for the entire fermentation, it will turn pink.
1973 was a good year for Sutter Home winery in Napa. The sun shone bright and long and they had an abundance of ripe, juicy grapes at harvest as they began crushing the grapes for their premium Zinfandel (the red kind). Too juicy, in fact. To make the Zinfandel more concentrated and flavorful, they drew off some of the juice during fermentation, leaving them with some plush red and some pink “throw-away” stuff. That pink stuff didn’t ferment completely, so it was sweeter, and it didn’t spend as long on the tannin imparting skins, so it was smoother. When they tasted it again at the end of harvest to see what to do with it, it turned out to be quite tasty. So – what they heck – they bottled it.
White Zinfandel turned out to be the most popular wine in America until it was out-sold in 1998 by Chardonnay. Today there is more acreage planted to Zinfandel grapes in California than any other grape varietal.
It was recently discovered that the Zinfandel grape is genetically identical to Primitivo, a grape grown in Italy, and that the vine most likely originated in Croatia. But you can’t get a real Zinfandel anywhere else but here. Zinfandel has become both in name and in style, uniquely American. The Italians even recently requested permission of the EU to call Primitivo Zinfandel. I dare anyone to find any other instance in history where this has happened. It would be like asking to call pizza a cheese pie.
Another interesting bit of oenophilic patriotism: Both Zinfandel and White Zinfandel pair wonderfully with Thanksgiving Dinner – the quintessential American holiday.