Because of the diversity in culture, climate and terroir, Italian wine takes on many different faces. Whites from northern and coastal areas are generally light-bodied and unoaked with prominent acidity, while those from southern areas tend to be fuller and softer. Reds can range from light and lean to rich and lush.
But one thing ties all of these together: the wines of Italy are definitely designed for food-friendliness. Good Italian wine is meant to accompany a good (though not necessarily Italian) meal. The higher acidity levels and leaner body for which these wines are famous never overpowers the dish, and the wide spectrum of flavors means you can find something appropriate to any meal.
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Often referred to as “America’s Heritage Grape,” Zinfandel is the quintessential California grape. It is just this unpretentious, homegrown mystique that attracts anti-wine snobs to the many varied styles of Zinfandel.
Historically, the grape is tied to the Gold Rush era. Alcohol was in high demand with thirsty miners, and Zinfandel, whose vines are capable of producing high yields, was readily available for consumption. Practical considerations also helped to propagate the vine. The materials used to build the gold mines made timber and wire scarce. The Zinfandel vine could be planted without wire or post, in a freestanding bush shape known as “head pruned.”
The quintessential California grape is anything but American in origin, though. In the 1990s, UC Davis Professor Carole Meredith confirmed that Zinfandel and Italy’s Primitivo have the same DNA structure, leading to speculation that Italian immigrants may have brought the vine to California. However in 2002, Meredith and her colleagues published the discovery that Zinfandel and the Croatian grape Crjenak Kaštelanski have identical DNA, and that Croatia may be the place of origin for this grape.
Zinfandel’s telltale bold flavors vary from raspberry liqueur to exotic Asian spice, chocolate and pepper notes. It’s generally high in alcohol, with rich, syrupy fruit and a lush texture, making it a favorite of another American tradition — barbecue. Whatever its origin, Zinfandel is purely an American wine phenomenon.
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