The other night I was sipping a forgettable zinfandel when a relative grew inquisitive. She was surprised that my zin was red because she didn’t think that was normally the case. It took me a few rounds of Q&A before I realized her confusion was over white zinfandel. Spending too much time around wine means assuming everyone knows as much as the average sommelier.
So this may not be the most exciting piece I’ve ever written for my more advanced wine readers, but I feel strongly it’s time for a recap on zinfandel, white zinfandel and rosé. This is one of the minor tricks of the wine industry: Ill-informed consumers are often fooled by similar words and wines with similar coloring. They wind up asking for the wrong thing—or embarrassing themselves in front of more knowledgeable oenophiles. So I consider this my public-service column.
Zinfandel itself is a dark red grape used in California and elsewhere. It is the equivalent of Italian Primitivo. Often shortened to “zin”—because this is America and we can’t be bothered with poly-syllabic nomenclature—the wines produced are notably spicy, bold and fruity. They tend to pair well with red meats, particularly when grilled or roasted.
White Zinfandel is a sweet pink wine (not white at all) and is created using zinfandel grapes. “White zin” is sickly sweet, and stories about drinking it should always contain the phrase, “I can’t believe I was ever that young…”
North Carolina’s own Biltmore Estates will soon be offering a white zin under the appellation “blanc de noir,” French for white of black. The French use this wording to describe champagne made from pinot noir grapes. Using it to describe a sweet pink wine from a non-traditional wine-making region may not go over well with our Gallic allies across the Atlantic. (Tell the next Frenchman you meet about the blanc de noir from Biltmore. My guess is you’ll see some funny facial expressions and learn some exciting new French obscenities.)
White zinfandel is a subset of a broader category of wines called “rosés.” Remember Venn diagrams from grade school? All white zins are rosés but not all rosés are white zins.
Rosés can actually be lovely. Good ones have the rich flavors of a bold red mixed with the cool crispness of a well-chilled white. Red wines start out white and are dyed red by contact with the dark-skin of the grape. Rosés are made by limiting the length of the contact with those skins and leaving the wine pink rather than dark red. Many serious wine drinkers eschew them for fear of being seen drinking a pink wine. The stigma of white zinfandel haunts them. This is a shame because the market has some wonderful rosés.
Which takes me back to the beginning. Many red wine drinkers don’t know there are red zinfandels—and a surprising number of wine drinkers don’t know there is a wider world of pink wines beyond what they remember from their earliest drinking days. Many good restaurants don’t even offer a glass pour of zinfandel.
In fairness, zin has never achieved the popularity of the big three reds: pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Given a significant portion of people won’t order it, for fear of getting something sweet and pink—coupled with the fact most wine drinkers would just as soon have a glass of pinot—zinfandel has a bit of an uphill climb when it comes to wine lists.
But to new wine enthusiasts who want to give it a taste, I’d suggest 7 Deadly Zins—not just for its catchy name. It’s an affordable wine that offers a genuine taste of what a basic model zinfandel should be: fruity and mildly spicy with a fair hint of cinnamon. It’s a good wine for a fair price and will be great with some of the heartier meals of fall.
Proprietors from the corner wine shop can certainly suggest good rosés for the dog days of summer.
Oh, and skip white zinfandels altogether—you’re too old for that nonsense.