If you want to learn about zinfandel, or casually known as zin, you definitely want to talk to winemaker Katie Madigan, of St. Francis Winery & Vineyards. She’s in charge of the zinfandel program at the winery, where she’s been working from the ground up, you might say, since 2002.
“I started in 2002 as an intern,” she said, “working the harvest and one of my main jobs was sampling the vineyards for winemakers and getting accustomed to the land. So I sampled all the grapes and I updated the winemakers on the maturity level, and I just really became impassioned with working in vineyards, working in the winery. So then I went to UC Davis and finished my studies in enology/viticulture in 2005. St. Francis asked me to be assistant winemaker. I was Tom Mackie’s assistant for eight years and when he retired in 2011, he asked me to step in and be winemaker.”
Madigan, who also makes the winery’s chardonnay, called zin California’s signature grape.
History of Zin
“Zinfandel has a very complex history, first of all,” Madigan said. “I think we tend to see it as California’s grape varietal because it has been here since about – they think – 1830s is when they think it really came to California. We’re still working out the kinks on where we think the origin is. We think it’s Croatia. It could be Italy, as well. It’s very, very close, what the records say. But for me, zinfandel is a fresh variety. It has lots of fresh fruit, but also some pretty good spice. It should be a complex wine. It shouldn’t be too soft. It should be very enjoyable with or without food.
She added that zin can also show off where it’s grown by its flavor.
“It’s a very aromatic varietal, that’s what I love about it. It’s very representative of where it’s grown. So if it’s in a cool area, you’ll get more light red, raspberry. If it’s in a warmer area, you get more of that blackberry, blueberry aroma. And that’s very interesting,” she said.
Zinfandel styles and food
Now, some of us (like, say, Anne) have not been big fans of zinfandel because back in the 1990s, winemakers focused on a very, very fruity wines with lots of alcohol that tasted like jam in glass (and Anne firmly believes jam belongs on toast, instead). Madigan said that it seems like that style of zinfandel is going away.
“I hope that we’re going back. The zinfandel… What I call Old World zinfandel, does have a very distinct pepper spice note complexity. I think there was definitely a decade that saw a very soft, supple zinfandels and I’m hoping that what we’re seeing these days is kind of a fusion of both,” she said. “To me, the texture of the wine and the mouthfeel is what I find most fascinating. I’m like you. I’m hoping we’re seeing more complexity and length and spice on those wines.”
As for what to eat with zinfandel, Madigan is pretty open.
“Honestly, I do believe that zinfandel is one of those wines where I call it an all-weather wine,” she said. “Here in California, it’s our go-to barbecue wine. Anything that’s put on the barbecue is going to pair with zinfandel. But also, Thanksgiving. Usually the Thanksgiving feast pairs very well with it. I think it can transition from season to season. That’s what’s so great about it.”
The Dreaded White Zin
Alas, no discussion about zinfandel would be complete without talking about white zin – usually a sweet, medicine-like wine that was quite the fad some years ago. But for the fun of it, we asked Madigan if one could make a nice dry rose out of zin.
“We do one that’s for our wine club only,” Madigan said. “We only make 300 cases of it. And it’s a hundred percent zinfandel. It’s made in the Provence style. I think white zinfandel was a trend and it was a style of wine. Rose is also a style of wine, and I’m very inspired by Provence, and so even though it’s made of zinfandel, which is not traditional, it tastes very similar to what you’ll find in traditional French roses.”
And while that’s not everything you need to know about zinfandel, what’s left is tasting it yourself.
What’s your favorite zinfandel and why do you like it?