Guide to Zinfandel Varieties (From Sweet to Dry) 

Updated January 17, 2022

A bold wine with a brambly hedge vibe that lingers, zinfandel has a presence that cannot be overlooked. Widely grown across California and Southern Italy, the grape is made into either a rich red wine or an off-dry rosé full of sweet strawberry notes. If you've only had the latter, you'll want to find a good bottle of full-bodied, dry zin to experience the brimming complexity of the grape.

Zinfandel Flavor Profile and Characteristics

Zinfandel Flavor Profile and Characteristics

Zinfandel is a dark, robust, dry red wine with medium-high acidity and similar tannins. Full-bodied and high in alcohol, zinfandel's fruit notes start in the red spectrum and turn into more black fruit flavors of plum, black cherry, blackberry, and spice as the berries ripen. The fruit flavors are very full and rich with a jammy characteristic. Juicy fig and brambly fruit are accompanied by subtle spices of star anise, black pepper, and licorice. It has pronounced aromas of blackberry, black plum, and raisin. Styles matured in oak offer flavors of vanilla, smoke, coffee, and nutmeg. It is typically one of the more alcoholic red wines with an ABV (alcohol by volume) between 14-17%.

Is Zinfandel Sweet?

Zinfandel can be sweet, it can also be dry. It just depends on the winemaker and the style of wine they are making. When people think of sweet zin, they may be recalling experiences with white zinfandel. White zinfandel is often sweet and floral. It is a very easy-drinking, light-bodied, quaffable wine with flavor that matches almost any food with which you serve it. This low ABV sweet rosé is mass produced, inexpensive, and often checks the boxes for beginner wine drinkers looking for a bottle to go with their beach read on summer vacation.

How to Drink It

Red zinfandel is a wine deserving of a true red wine glass if you got one. Serve between 60-65°F (15-18°C). Older vintages may need to be decanted 30 minutes to one hour. High quality zins can cellar for 5-10 years.

Food Pairings

Zinfandel is a great food wine. Its bold personality pairs best with dishes that pack their own punch. Grilled Italian sausage with sweet red peppers, lasagna, beef stew, or spicy, marinated flank steak are all great options for this heavy-hitter red. A tart of butternut squash, caramelized onions, and gruyère or dishes that mimic some of the black pepper notes, like Korean barbeque, are also great matches for a dry zin. This is a wine for a cool Autumn day with a hearty soup and a crusty loaf of bread, not exactly one that you want to drink on a warm day when you are on the brink of dehydration. If you are sipping a white zinfandel, something much more light and refreshing will be best. Think, potato chips and anchovies marinated in white vinegar or mild chèvre and crackers.

Where Is It Grown?

Old abandoned winery house in vineyard, Italy

Zinfandel is a bold, dark-skinned grape that needs a warm climate to ripen fully. The two primary growing regions are California and Puglia, Italy, where the summer heat soaks the vineyards and the grapes fill with sugars, producing high alcohol wines. Vines grown at higher altitudes retain more acidity and express more red fruit notes and nuanced spice. Parts of California, like Lodi, are known for their old vine zinfandel, where the vines can be more than 100 years old. These vines produce lower quantities of higher quality, highly concentrated fruit which can have tertiary flavors of earth and meat after maturing. In southern Italy, the sun-baked landscape is covered with the vines, known there as primitivo. The vineyards with controlled yields produce high quality, robust wines with spicy notes.

A Few to Try

Looking to try a California zin? Check out Coturri Winery, Martha Stoumen, Broc Cellars, and En Cavale. If you want to lean into the Italian versions, Guttarolo and Perrini are names to look for. Stepping out of the traditional regions, you can find biodynamic winery, Troon, in Oregon, making a delightfully compelling zinfandel in the cooler climate. Finally, if you are looking for a new take on an old-school wine, Las Jaras, from California, makes a character-infused, dry rosé from the grape full of big fruit, hibiscus, and mouth-watering minerality.

A Big, Bold Red

This jammy number requires your full attention, so if you've glazed over this juicy wine in the past, now is the time to search out a bottle and really get to know it. Get ready to add this one into your red rotation.

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Guide to Zinfandel Varieties (From Sweet to Dry)