Zinfandel truly is California's unique contribution to the world of wine. Unlike ubiquitous cabernet and chardonnay there is no European yardstick to compare itself against. It has had to find its own way, its history modelling that of the settlers who first brought it to America's west coast. But the story of where the grape originally came from and how it got its name has for many years been a matter of considerable debate and exhaustive study.
Historians discovered that the grape was first brought to Long Island, New York by George Gibbs who had brought cuttings back from the Imperial collection of plant species in Vienna. In 1832 it was advertised for sale in Boston as "zinfendal" and by 1845 it had become popular as a table grape, grown under glass, throughout northeast America.
The grape went west at the time of the Gold Rush. It adapted well to the hotter climate and most importantly could be grown without the need for sticks or wire, both of which were in short supply and it produced an abundant crop for thirsty miners. It's hard to make a bad wine from zinfandel, which is probably how it survived the prohibition years as it was the grape of choice for home winemakers!
But where did zinfandel come from and how did it get its name? There was much speculation that it was the same grape as primitivo from Puglia in the heel of Italy. Indeed DNA testing has proved that they are genetically the same but with subtle clonal differences. However, the grape is a relative newcomer to this part of the world (it has only been grown in southern Italy for the last 150-200 years) and it is thought to have been brought here from Croatia by monks who travelled across the Adriatic.
In 1998, Professor Carole Meredith from California's Davis University brought back cuttings of a grape called plavac mali from the Dalmatian coast. Although it looked suspiciously like zinfandel, DNA fingerprinting showed that though the grapes are not the same they possibly share the same parentage. In 2001, with the help of researchers from the University of Zagreb, a match was found in some obscure island vineyards. Zinfandel is in fact crljenak kastelanski (sirl-YEN-ack kastel-AN-ski).
But the name is still a mystery. The Imperial Viennese gardens kept cuttings of all vines within the realm including a Hungarian white called "zinfandeller"….perhaps the vine tags were switched at some point. Or is it named in honour of 18th century German botanist Dr Zinn? Another, quite fitting explanation is that it comes from the Italian "zingaro", meaning gypsy.