In Like Zin

by John Fischer | September 1, 2008 8:56 pm

Zinfandel is a Vinifera grape that is grown almost exclusively in California. The major other producer is from Italy where the wine is called Primitivo, a good wine, but most consider the varietal from California superior. Other vintners are also experimenting with the grape; recently, on a trip to Chile, I had a chance to sample their experimental version of Zinfandel – not so good! The origin of Zinfandel can be traced back to the Middle East.

Zinfandel is made in a variety of styles that range from simple and fruity white Zinfandel to a rich and full-bodied, alcoholic Port styled wine. Of all the styles, the most popular and most successful is the robust, full-bodied wine crafted similar to Cabernet Sauvignon. In our discussion, we will limit ourselves to this style. Like Cabernet, this style is deeply pigmented, high in alcohol, full-bodied, tannic, and rich in flavorful extracts. However, acidity is present in lesser amounts, which effectively compensates the wine’s balance against Zinfandels high tannin levels.

Characteristically, Zinfandel expresses itself as a big, burly beverage with aggressive, spicy, brambly fruit. The term brambly connotes the flavors of blackberries or raspberries and the aggressive prickliness of their vines. These aggressive berry flavors and prickly tannins dominate the varietal character of the wine.

With age, the wine can develop a variety of other savors what include cedar, tobacco, chocolate, herbs and spices. Nevertheless, most tasters will agree that the wine is best in the first few years after its productions, as the wine starts to flag and sometimes develops bitterness with aging.

Zinfandel may not be as sophisticated as Cabernet Sauvignon, but it provides a big mouthful of a vigorous and lively wine. If you are looking for subtleties in this wine, you will be disappointed. This is a big manly wine that is stuffed with a parade of exciting flavors that are invigorated by a telltale prickly mouth feel. What the wine lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in guts. Look for flavors that include raspberries, blackberries, black currant and black pepper all melded together with high levels of tannins and alcohol that are supported by moderate amounts of acidity. The high levels of alcohol and limited acidity give the wine a mild sweetness in spite of the fact that it contains no residual sugars.

Pepper steak paired to Zinfandel is a phenomenal match.

Serve this wine with big, hearty, unsophisticated foods. This is a great wine for grilled foods such as sausages, burgers, hot dogs, ribs, brisket and the like. It is a great match for braised meats and hearty stews. The prickle character of the wine makes it a natural match for aggressive foods with similar characteristics. Pepper steak is a prime example. Do not serve this wine with delicate or highly refined foods, as the aggressiveness of the wine will pulverize the flavors and texture of such foods.
Most Zinfandels are eminently drinkable on release and are generally less expensive than a good Cabernet Sauvignon. However, with increasing quality, the prices of these wines have progressively increased.

Dr. John Fischer is a member and two-time president of the Omaha Branch of the International Wine & Food Society, past director of the Nebraska chapter of LADV, and the founding member of the Council Bluffs Branch of the International Wine & Food Society. He teaches a course on matching wine with food at the Institute for the Culinary Arts in Omaha and is the author of the books, “The Evaluation of Wine – A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Wine Tasting” and “Wine and Food – 101.”

What makes the match?

The technique of matching a wine with food involves pairing the characteristics of the wine to those of the food. In the above paring, both wine and food are rich, full-bodied, and have an aggressive edge. Moreover, berry and black pepper flavors in the wine reflect to similar savors in the food. Echoing the characteristics in wine to those in the food serves to tie the two together in a titillating hedonistic package. The wine enhances the food, and the food complements the wine.
Pepper steak paired to Zinfandel is a phenomenal match. Try it. I’m sure you’ll like it!

Wine Terminology; Tannin

Tannin is a term often misunderstood. They are a family of substances that can be experienced only in red wine. The small amounts found in white wines are not detectable on the palate. To experience the sensation of tannin, put a small amount of red wine in your mouth and slosh it around like a mouth wash. Your mouth and teeth will become dry, and the slippery mucus secretions that lubricate the mouth will disappear. In higher quality wines this effect is less severe and is best described as dry and powdery. In less noble wines, the effect is coarser and is often described as rough and scabrous. The tannin in Zinfandel is unique. In addition to a dry oral sensation, the tannins found in Zinfandel impart a prickly aggressive component which is complimentary to the wine.

Tannins serve to protect wine against spoilage during its evolutionary period. Many red wines are not ready to drink until they have aged for several years in bottle. They need time to settle down and let their flavors ripen. As a wine ages, the tannin content declines and the dry, rough  sensation on the palate abates. At maturity, a good quality wine becomes soft, round, silky, and flavorful. Tannins are the main reason that red wines last so much longer than white wines.

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