Forgive Me, for I Have Zinned (July 21, 2005)
Image this Pythonesque scenario: French consumers take it into their heads that white wine is healthier than red. Almost overnight they turn their backs on red Burgundy in favour of white. The Burgundian farmers are left with enormous acreages of ancient Pinot Noir vines producing wines that no-one will drink. Zut alors, sacrebleu! What to do?
To save their livelihoods, they begin tearing out Pinot Noir and planting Chardonnay. Or they T-bud Chardonnay onto their existing Pinot Noir vines, knowing it will be at least three years before they get a commercial crop.
One winemaker decides not to grub out his vines. Since the public taste is for white wine, he'll make a white wine from his Pinot Noir grapes. But the growing season is hot and the grapes develop lots of colour. When he presses the bunches, he finds that the free-run juice has a faint tinge of pink from the phenonically enhanced skins. Since there was not much of a market for rosé wines, he decides not to call the wine he made rosé but Saigné; and to make it more appealing, he leaves some residual sugar in the wine.
His Saigné is an immediate and phenomenal success. The French are buying it in unprecedented amounts. Everyone wants his Saigné. Other Burgundy houses jump on the bandwagon and soon Saigné is outselling white Burgundy. People who have never tasted wine before are buying Saigné. So much so that French consumers forget that Pinot Noir produces a red wine and believed that it makes a sweet, pale pink wine. A new category of wine is born.
Now, in the above fairy tale substitute, American consumers for French and Zinfandel for Pinot Noir. There you have the story behind the accidental invention of White Zinfandel and the whole worldwide battery of Blush wines that was to follow. Because it was California's Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home who first made White Zinfandel in the 1970s.
White Zinfandel is a misnomer wrapped in an oxymoron. It isn't white and it isn't the Zinfandel that has been made in California since the mid-19th century a gutsy, deeply coloured red that for generations was the workhorse grape of the California wine industry, a wine used in blends that were called "Claret," "Burgundy" and other French regional knock-offs.
When offered White Zin, wine lovers tend to turn up their noses at this confected beverage, but the grape itself has an honourable place in the history of American wine. At the end of Prohibition, it was Zinfandel that the wineries used to rebuild their industry, and from the late 1970s through the 1990s it was the profits generated by White Zinfandel that allowed many wineries to stay afloat.
Zinfandel was first planted in California in the 1860s (although its name turns up in New York State nursery catalogues as early as the 1820s). It was a Hungarian aristocrat, Count Agoston Harazthy, who planted the first Zinfandel at Buena Vista in Sonoma along with many other varieties he brought over from Europe. Harazthy was to meet a rather unfortunate end. While crossing a river on horseback in Nicaragua, he fell from his saddle and was devoured by alligators. (There are wine critics everywhere.)
Harazthy, ever the businessman, would probably have approved of White Zinfandel. Love it or hate it, it is here to stay a wine that has taken over from Baby Duck, Mateus Rosé and Manischewitz as the first baby step into wine appreciation. I would go even further and say that not only is White Zin necessary (a bridging beverage between pop drinks and dry wines for young people interested in tasting wine) but it has a legitimate place on your dinner table. If you are serving a spicy Thai curry or a Chinese dish with soy, ginger and garlic, what are you going to choose as an accompanying wine? A dry Muscat? An off-dry Riesling? Viognier? Next time, consider a nicely chilled bottle of White Zinfandel. It will be a lot cheaper than those other aromatic wines. My recommendation would be Beringer's White Zinfandel. And best of all, you won't have to blush when you serve it.