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Finding the Heart of Zinfandel

It can be light in color, so the vineyard could contain a grape like alicante bouschet, which yields dark, deeply colored wines. Other grapes, like carignan, might have been planted to add acidity, along with any number of other varieties, each with its particular attributes.

Industrial winemakers today can simply take care of any potential problems in the cellar, adding products like Mega Purple, powdered tannin or tartaric acid to solve issues of color, structure or acidity.

But these long-ago farmers, with their Old World experience, anticipated problems with more natural solutions. As today’s cliché has it, those old wines were truly made in the vineyard.

Still, we don’t know much about how their wines smelled, tasted or felt in the mouth. And zinfandel producers cannot point to Old World cultural traditions, even if the immigrants who planted these old vineyards were in a sense trying to conjure up the wines they’d enjoyed in southern Italy or wherever they originated.

The history that does exist identifies no dominant style of zinfandel. In his entertaining 1991 book, “Angels’ Visits: An Inquiry Into the Mystery of Zinfandel,” David Darlington pointed out that over many decades zinfandel styles “swung widely from moderate claret-like table wines to lurid alcoholic essences to pink soda-pop-like aperitifs.”

“This lack of a coherent zinfandel tradition is, however, another thing that makes it a purely American wine,” Mr. Darlington wrote in the book, which was later reissued as “Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel.”

In other words, zinfandel could invent and reinvent itself. Most recently, over the last 25 years, its identity has been that of an extravagant, alcoholic wine. Good producers could match power with precision. In less skilled hands, the wines could just as easily be thick, sweet and syrupy.

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