The international wine consumer is constantly looking for new wine styles or innovative cellar techniques. One way of satisfying this demand is to use different grape cultivars.

Zinfandel, which could possibly be described as the Californian equivalent of South Africa’s Pinotage, might have the necessary characteristics to present consumers with a new product.

Although Zinfandel is usually described as an American cultivar, it is European in origin. DNA analyses conducted in 1990 confirmed that it is the same as the Italian cultivar Primitivo, but historical data confirmed that Zinfandel was established in California before Italy. Further DNA analyses confirmed that Zinfandel is closely related to the cultivar Plavac mali and therefore it most probably originated in Croatia (MacNeil, 2001).

Zinfandel is a late mid-season cultivar with medium large, round berries. It is vigorous and has good production ability. It is, however, very sensitive to wind, fruit fly and rot, tends to uneven ripening and produces highly acidic musts (Visser, 2006).

Red wine made from Zinfandel may be described as berry, pepper, clove, cinnamon, oregano or floral. If grapes are very ripe when pressed, blackberry, plum or raisin flavours may be expected, while green bean, eucalyptus and mint flavours are observed in wines from grapes that were not yet optimally ripe at the time of pressing.

The use of Zinfandel as a cultivar wine in California was very limited until 1960. Most of the wines made from it were sold as Californian Burgundy. After 1975 Zinfandel started to dominate the market of so-called “blush wines”, but the actual role of Zinfandel had yet to come. Zinfandel began to make an impression as a red cultivar wine in the 1970s, as a result of being promoted by well-known wine writers. During the same period some cellars also started to produce a lighter style Zinfandel, which was especially flavourful without being too high in tannin or alcohol content. This raised the question to which extent wines with a high alcohol content would be acceptable. A degree of resistance to wines with an alcohol content above 16% A/V was experienced in the Californian wine industry. Although consumer preferences differ, the vineyards’ natural potential are the decisive factor. Viticultural practices can then be structured to ensure that abnormally high sugar contents are obtained from the grapes. If, however, the point of view is that wine should be complementary to food, the more elegant wines will be preferable to wines that are high in tannins and alcohol content (Wong, 2005).

As a result of a thin skin and a compact bunch, Zinfandel is usually not considered suitable for the Eastern United States. By planting the Italian Primitivo clone, which has a less compact bunch, it is possible to overcome the problem to a certain extent. Although the wines of this clone are not as dark in colour as the Californian Zinfandel, they may be blended to great advantage with cultivars such as Sangiovese and Cabernet franc (MacNeil, 2001).

In South Africa it may be worth while producing a light style of wine in warm, dry areas, but it has limited potential due to viticultural difficulties. Two clones, notably ZD 1 and ZD 75, are available locally and a Primitivo clone, FPS 06, imported from Davis, is currently still under quarantine (Visser, 2006).

The total number of vines planted in South Africa has decreased slightly over the past 3 years (from 37,7 to 34,9 hectares) and it is encountered mainly in Paarl (50%), Stellenbosch (30%) and Malmesbury (19%) (Sawis, 2005).

References:

MacNeil, Karen. 2001. The Wine Bible, Workman Publishing Co Inc, New York: 650.
Sawis statistics. 2005. Personal communication.
Visser, C. 2006. Personal communication.
Wong, W. 2005. The Amazing Metamorphing Zinfandel, Thirty Years of Style Evolution Continues. Vineyard and Winery Management Nov/Dec 2005: 85 – 89.

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