A Guide to Pairing: Zinfandel

Today marks National Zinfandel Day, so here we are to discuss food and wine and things of that nature…on we go!

First off, a bit about Zinfandel

  • California has been shown to be the premier growing region in the world for this grape, and is seen as a heritage grape within the state
  • Zin is a bit of a chameleon, styles being found from blush and Rosé wines, to lighter bodied Beaujolais-like wines, to full expressions like Cabernet, and finally sweet expressions like Port-styled dessert wines
  • Zin is thought to be traced back to Caucasus, originating in 6000 BC, and thought to be one of the first winemaking grapes when winemaking was discovered
  • Lots of folks believe White Zinfandel is a grape, it is not, it’s the naming when Zinfandel is done in a sweeter, blush styling with minimal skin contact

That said, let’s talk food (think like a chef):

Zinfandel is such an extreme chameleon (as stated above) that you’ll really need to know your Zin and its styling before diving in.  While some Zins can stand up to a Tomahawk ribeye, others will just get crushed by such a piece of meat, and be better suited to pair like a Pinot Noir (pigs, mushrooms, turkey, etc.).  And of course there’s the famous sweet White Zins of California, that in tandem with the Port-styled Late Harvest Zins, are much better fare for dessert pairings.

Speaking in the broadest of terms with Zinfandel (as there are so many nuances from one to the next) you’re working with berry flavors, jam, spice box, cigar, black pepper, plum, and licorice.

Much like our previously written about Tempranillo, Zinfandel has a flavor and aromatic spectrum that makes it incredible for pairing with foods, add in the versatility in winemaking styles, you might find a Zin for just about anything.

Compare AND contrast:

Anything served with a comparable flavored berry jam as an accompaniment is going to be an easy pairing.  If your Zin has a boysenberry-like flavor, top your roasted meat with boysenberry jam for an easy, great pairing.

Some Zins have a cigar box spice and tobacco-smoky finish that dominates the flavor profile, and while not food, pairing that kind of Zin with an actual cigar makes for a great pairing experience.

Again, Zin can basically be any sort of way, so taste it and know it, then just match the flavors in the wine with flavors on the plate.

Now, being so matchy-matchy can get boring quickly.  As with most wines, contrasting flavors make for a showcase of what Zin really has to offer at the dinner table.

We cannot repeat this enough: Know your Zin before pairing.

A lighter-styled Zin, more akin to Pinot Noir, will be the perfect pairing with a vast array of chicken or turkey based dishes.  A Zin of medium proportions will bridge pork, to wild game meats, pizzas, pastas, and even lamb.  And your fullest expressions of Zin should make for great company with BBQ, steaks, elk, or any other robust meat and/or preparation.

And when it comes to dessert, remember, the wine should be as sweet as or sweeter than the dish to pair perfectly.  Gauge the sweetness of your White Zin or Late Harvest (Red) Zin before choosing the sweetness of the dish it’s going with.

That said, in dessert pairings, Zinfandel can compare alongside dish flavors (blueberry pie with a blueberry-forward Late Harvest Zin for example) quite well, but contrasting the dish flavors with the flavors of the wine will win the evening.  Cheesecake is often nice with a berry compote or jam drizzled over the top, so why not skip the jam and replace it with the flavors of your late harvest Zin?  No matter the flavor profile of your White Zin or Late Harvest Zin, it will make for the perfect jam replacement alongside NY’s famous dessert while the wine’s acidity cuts through the famous palate richness cheesecake provides.  Really, a match made in heaven.

Much the same as above, any custard or brûlée that would usually get some sort of berry component as an accompaniment can have the berry component accented by or even replaced by a good sweet-styled Zin.

Get weird:

Speaking of Zin and dessert pairings, one of our favorite odd pairings doesn’t sound so weird when you break it down…

Have you ever had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?  Those with allergies aside, we’re gonna assume, yes.

A particularly jammy and medium-to-fully sweet Late Harvest Zinfandel and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (the mini’s specifically, not the standard, large 2 cup package) are one of the most palatably energizing combinations on Earth.  The berry flavors of the wine with the sweet peanut butter just explode with nostalgia on the palate while the chocolate really works with the lower acidity in the wine to uplift the peanut butter and berry flavors.  There is an incredibly umami rich finish that is just like a classic PB&J.  Finding a pairing like this is exactly why folks experiment (and often fail before getting something this right) with food and wine, when it hits, it hits!

So there you have it, our guide for pairing Zinfandel on National Zinfandel Day.

How about you though? For our other guests, please feel free to share your pairing suggestions for Zinfandel in the comments below.

Cheers!

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