When someone asks me if I can teach them about wine, one of the first questions I ask to gauge their knowledge base is what color they think zinfandel wine normally comes in. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the sweet older lady at the end of the bar exclaim ‘I thought this was zinfandel but zinfandel is white’ during a tasting but it occurs at least once a trip. I chose to discuss the ‘other zinfandel’, first because I had a bottle of it for ‘educational purposes’ in my collection, and second, to explain what it actually is since it is so prolific. White zinfandel is essentially a rosé made of zinfandel grapes but the fermentation is stopped short of fermenting all the way. This results in the off-dry to sweet, low alcohol, fruity wine we know.
White zinfandel was not invented purposefully. It was a happy accident during winemaking at Sutter Home in 1975. During the production of their red zinfandel, the winemaker took some of the juice off the grape skins after it had a light pink color to make a dry rosé. This would be accomplished by adding yeast and allowing the juice to ferment until all of the sugar is consumed by the yeast and converted into alcohol. Fortunately for the winemaker, this particular batch stopped short of completely fermenting. (A fermentation can be stopped by cooling the wine (yeast doesn’t like cold temperatures) and filtering out the yeast.) When they sampled the wine and realized what had occurred, a decision was made to bottle and sell the wine anyway. It was an overnight sensation and has continued to sell millions of cases annually ever since.
Last time I tasted a white zin, it was in a food and wine pairing class a few years ago. Our instructor was attempting to demonstrate every wine has a purpose. It tasted like watermelon jolly rancher candies and seemed completely artificial. Tonight, I have the Baron Herzog 2019 White Zin from the state of California. When a wine fails to list a specific area and instead uses a broad geographic region, the fruit can come from anywhere within that region. The fruit in the bottle most likely was sourced from the bulk wine area of the Central Valley, where about 75% of grapes from California are grown. The land is fertile, which leads to less concentrated grapes. These grapes are perfect for jug wine production or ‘3 buck chuck’. With all of this said, I went into my tasting with an open mind. The wine was a clear pale salmon color with watery legs. It was a simple wine with aromas that consisted of artificial watermelon and strawberry, menthol, and lemon drops candies. It had a minimal level of acid to counterbalance the off-dry sugar content. The alcohol level was definitely low. The sugar content was enough to create a rounder feeling on the palate. When I tasted it, the first flavors that came to mind were again those watermelon jolly ranchers with a finish of flavored raisins. The finish slipped away quickly. This bottle is a fair representation of what white zinfandel tends to be, uncomplicated and consumer friendly.