Wine: A study in zinfandel

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From the September 19, 2013 edition

Red and white zinfandel start from the same zinfandel grape, popularly grown in California, but from there, things get different. Wildly different.

Red zinfandel ranges from spicy to simply full-bodied; the white version is almost always singularly sweet.

For comparison purposes, I sampled a 2009 Il Cuore Zinfandel (about $14, from my collection), which was very fruity (blackberries and stone fruits like plums came forward for me), slightly oaky and far from tannic. It would be great with grilled poultry, lamb or steak with an herb butter sauce. It also sips very well on its own, if you like a heavy red.

White zinfandel, which is most often thought of as the non-wine-drinker’s wine, is made with the same zinfandel grapes — but the juice they produce is just barely left in contact with the grape skins, which gives the drink its pinkish hue. The resulting wine is typically sweet, cheap and low in alcohol.

Although a quick Google search shows that “white zin,” as it’s affectionately known, is the third-most-popular varietal in the United States, finding it at a Columbus wine shop was a tall order (one shop manager I asked scoffed at the idea). Instead, I headed to the grocery store, where among the plenty of options I picked a total classic: 2012 Sutter Home White Zinfandel ($6 at Kroger). The sweet, fruity wine inside didn’t taste much different than a light glass of strawberry-pineapple juice, and the sugar factor was at an almost-cloying level. (I couldn’t help but think it would work well in the mint sangria recipe I wrote about a few weeks ago, though.) Another great use for sweet wine: to put out the fire of spicy foods.

Therein lies the difference between these two varietals: one is so sweet it will tone down spicy dishes; the other is red-hot right from the glass.

Photo by Meghan Ralston