April 6, 2010

Zinfandel v. Syrah (v. Primitivo) Part 2

So back to that question: what differentiates Zinfandel from Syrah in a blind tasting? This came up from a blind comparative tasting in the last WSET class. My friend turned to me after the wines were revealed and said he could have sworn it was a Syrah that we just tasted. Well, true. The wine was balanced and didn't taste overly hot, but it had lots of spice and darker fruit. It was full bodied and structured. There was no obvious markers to trigger a reflex...we ran into what drXeno called "one of the most difficult cases of guessing a blinded wine’s varietal…New World Syrah/Shiraz vs. Zinfandel."

In the Wine Bible, Karen McNiel describes Zinfandel as a "mouth-filling dry red wine crammed with jammy blackberry, boysenberry, and plummy fruit." Syrah on the other hand has flavors that "... lean towards leather, damp earth, wild blackberries, smoke, roasted meats, and especially pepper and spice." She goes on to say that in the New world this can lean more towards the "... softer, thicker, more syrupy boysenberry-spice character." The masking/homogenizing effect of oak can cause further confusion between the two.

I've thought of a few potential markers to keep in mind. My first though was that white pepper and strong cedar notes would be giveaways for Syrah, but after a little more thinking and research, I've come up with these: 1) Zinfandels tend to be higher in alcohol than Old World Syrah, though this may not help with New World Syrahs. 2) Zinfandel displays more red fruit than Syrah. 3) Zinfandel lacks strong tannin. 4) Brettanomyces would more liekly be found in Syrah than Zin. Given that Brett. is viewed strictly as a flaw in the new world, it would be hard to imagine a barn-yardy Zin, but is potentially beneficial to pedigreed Rhones.

Any thoughts on the matter? What are your experiences with these two varieties?

April 5, 2010

Zinfandel v. Syrah (v. Primitivo) Part 1

The WSET Advanced course has started for me, with lots of reading and ego crushing blind tastings to slog through. It is very fun and exciting, and has had me running to different reference sources to find out more. This past week however brought up an interesting issue: what differentiates Zinfandel from Syrah in a blind tasting? And what differentiates a Primitivo, for that matter, from a Zinfandel?

The second question first... to put a point of pride to rest... since it came up while doing an informal tasting this weekend. Two other students, and myself, put together a selection of bottles, one being a Primitivo. Discussing the varietal characteristics, we compared it to Zinfandel. At this point I stated that Zinfandel and Primitivo were not, in fact, genetically identical. Having read about UC Davis research revealing that Zinfandell was, in fact identical to a Croatian grape, name unpronounceable and unmemorable, and the Primitivo was merely closely related. My source for this info was not at hand, and Jancis Robinson's Compact Wine companion shut me up pretty quick. Well, I'm checking my facts, and here's what I've found.

Wikipedia states:

Zinfandel is a variety of red grape planted in over 10 percent of California vineyards. DNA fingerprinting revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski, and also the Primitivo variety traditionally grown in the "heel" ofItaly, where it was introduced in the 1700s.

So, Jancis, my two friends, and I were perhaps all correct. And my source? Well, I tracked that down too: The September 2009 issue of Imbibe, a feature at the back "Tracing Zinfandel to its Croatian roots" by Evan Rail. Too bad it was more a human interest piece than wine geek piece. But speaking of WineGeek, I also found a piece on their site discussing the issue.

Part 2: So what about the differences between Syrah and Zin?