Wine Growing Areas
Zinfandel in California
Here is an overview of principal California American Viticultural Areas, (AVAs), the U.S. equivalent of appellations, associated with Zinfandel. For a deep dive into specific regions, please visit our Regional Guides.
California Zinfandel Acreage by County (2019)
|COUNTY||2019 TOTAL GRAPE ACRES
(bearing and non-bearing)
|2019 TOTAL GRAPE HECTARES
(bearing and non-bearing)
|San Luis Obispo||1,859||752|
Yountville, Oak Knoll, Oakville, Rutherford, Saint Helena, Calistoga, Coombsville, Pope Valley, Stag’s Leap, Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak
Many consider Napa Valley to produce California’s best Zinfandels. The valley is situated in a sweet spot between the cold Pacific coast and California’s sometimes torrid Inland Valley. Moreover, the Napa Valley’s soils are so diverse that any spot—flatland, bench, or slope—can yield Zinfandels of power and elegance. Napa Zinfandels are all about dark berries and peppery spice, with balanced acidity and persistent finishes.
- Valley Floor (Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, Calistoga, Stag’s Leap, Coombsville): These wines tend to be blacker fruited, plump, lush, rounder, even creamy, with sleeker tannins.
- Mountain AVAs and more (Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Chiles Valley, Atlas Peak): Structurally leaner, with often rapier-sharp acidity, grown on meager colluvial soils, these wines come from Napa’s myriad hillsides, ranging in elevation from 400 to 2,200 feet/67 to 122 meters. Mountain Zinfandels exhibit more structure, grittier tannins, greater intensity, and heightened aromatic complexity. These are more tightly wound and focused wines, with distinctive aromas and flavors showing more red-earth notes than their valley floor counterparts, along with notes of paprika and pipe tobacco. Howell Mountain deserves a shout-out for its broad-shouldered, concentrated, strapping examples.
Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley, Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Moon Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Knights Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile, Fountaingrove
For many a Zinfandel lover, bottlings emanating from across Sonoma County are among the variety’s most exemplary. Totaling about 12% of the county’s winegrape plantings, Sonoma-based Zinfandels account for many of California’s most appellation-distinctive offerings
- Lower/floor (Sonoma Valley, Valley of the Moon, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley):
- Sonoma Valley/Valley of the Moon: Zinfandel’s historic epicenter begins in the town of Sonoma, with important vineyards concentrated in Glen Ellen and Kenwood. Wines here are elegant and understated—as exemplified by Old Hill Vineyard Beltane Ranch—with complexity and organic earthiness.
- Russian River Valley: Once prolific, sadly less and less Zinfandel is now planted in this area. These wines, many dating from 100-year-old-plus vines, showcase deep, almost chewy, blue and black fruits.
- Alexander Valley: The best Zinfandel is grown on the benchlands and foothills, as excessive vigor is a problem for many examples grown on the valley floor. Its most famous old vineyard is unquestionably Ridge’s Geyserville, a mixed black vineyard which has a patch of vines over 130 years old.
- Dry Creek Valley: If there were a picture-perfect spot that defines most people’s vision of Zinfandel, it would be Dry Creek Valley. Home to several old-vine Zinfandel vineyards, mainly planted by Italian immigrants in the 1900s, its warmer spots are marked by full-bodied, robust wines with briary blackberry fruit, baking spice and peppercorn. Those from vineyards in cooler regions are more accessible early on, with suppler textures and dark stone fruit. Factoid: Dry Creek Valley contains about half of the county’s Zinfandel acreage.
- Mountain AVAs and more (Sonoma Mountain, Moon Mountain, Rockpile, Fountaingrove, Knights Valley):
- Rockpile: Zinfandel here benefits from moderate temperatures and extended hang time, which contribute to uniform ripening and avoid the raisining that can occur in high heat. Rockpile Zinfandels are celebrated for their elegant, intense red-fruited character and high acidity.
- Moon Mountain: Typified by the historic Monte Rosso Vineyard, planted in the 1880s, Moon Mountain Zinfandels are all about ripe black cherry, black raspberry, wisps of orange peel and Constant Comment tea.
- Sonoma Mountain: A small number of sites, including the Topolos Vineyard, a biodynamic, dry-farmed field blend vineyard tucked away in a corner of Sonoma Mountain, planted in 1975, make examples that are mostly mixed blacks (i.e. blended with Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, etc.), deep and intense with flavors of licorice and black fig.
Redwood Valley, McDowell Valley, Ukiah Valley, Mendocino Ridge, Potter Valley
Most vineyards lie along the Upper Russian River and Navarro River watersheds, on benchlands in and around the towns of Ukiah and Talmage in Redwood Valley, and in high-elevation subregions like Mendocino Ridge. Mendocino Zinfandel is defined by aromas of ripe cherries and blueberries, framed by notes of cocoa powder, roasted coffee beans and mocha. In spots like the Mendocino Ridge, they can be characteristically briary, with blackberry and black raspberry fruit and finishing with cracked black pepper. Additionally, Potter Valley, home to some of the state's oldest Zinfandel vines, also excels.
High Valley And Red Hills
Southeast of Mendocino County and north of Napa Valley, Lake County is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and covered in great part by the rugged Coastal Range, making it a warmer growing region than its northerly location might suggest. Zinfandel does well here, especially in the higher elevations of High Valley and the Red Hills.
Santa Cruz Mountains
While not a calling-card variety, Zinfandel performs well in the Santa Cruz Mountains, despite being overshadowed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Zinfandel is appreciated here for its altitude-amplified concentration and intensity.
At the southernmost tip of the Salinas Valley, the San Luis Obispo County town of Paso Robles boasts one of the highest concentrations of old-vine Zinfandel vineyards. Exemplified by the Dusi Vineyard, planted in 1923, old-vine Paso Zinfandel is consistently deep, with juicy bramble fruit on the palate, along with notes of ripe Bing cherry, gravelly earth, and dark chocolate. Interestingly, Zinfandels from Paso Robles are appreciably more aromatic than others. A quick sniff will display notes of lavender, violets, and roses, along with classic brambly red-berry flavors.
Mission wineries were established in LA County long before Northern California. Today, old Zinfandel vines can be found nestled in between highway interchanges. With flavors ranging from blackberry to tart black cherry, Zinfandel here tends to exhibit higher acidity than elsewhere in California.
- Cucamonga: Several vinifera vineyards were planted in the early 1900s for “packing grapes,” to ship to home to winemakers in Chicago and the East Coast. In near desert-like conditions, with rocky-sandy soils that hold little water, Cucamonga Zinfandels are among the most noteworthy wines of this now-small AVA. For more on Zinfandel from this region, check out Jon Bonné’s article in the SF Gate, “Cucamonga, where the ghosts of wine glory linger.”
Borden Ranch, Alta Mesa, Clement Hills, Mokelumne River
Lodi is Zinfandel country and accounts for a significant amount of California production, ranging between 20-30%, depending on who you read/trust. Vineyards here date back to the late 1800s, with ample quantities of vines on original rootstock. Lodi soils are rich and loamy on the west side, close to the Delta, becoming deeper and sandier, with lower water tables, to the east. Some century-old, head-trained, own-rooted vines managed to escape destruction from phylloxera due to their sandy soils (the phylloxera louse cannot prosper in sandy soils).
- Eastern Mokelumne River, Alta Mesa, Clements Hills, and Borden Ranch: These areas, slightly warmer and with deep sandy soils, typically produce smaller grape berries with higher acidity levels and tighter tannins, leading to rich Zinfandel wines with a distinctive hint of tea leaves and chocolate.
- Western section of the Mokelumne River: Lodi’s historic center, with its sandy-loam soils and cooler temperatures, result in Zinfandel wines that are typically round, lush, and earthy, but with ample acidity.
Contra Costa County’s vineyard area is shrinking on account of urban expansion and the fact that real estate here now delivers a greater ROI than wine. Like neighboring Lodi, many vineyards here are marked by sandy soils and own-rooted. Sitting just northwest of Sacramento and about 90 minutes by car from Amador, Yolo County is an emerging Zinfandel spot to keep on your radar, especially the Dunnigan Hills AVA.
- Dunnigan Hills: Sitting just northwest of Sacramento, about 90 minutes by car from Amador, Yolo County, especially the Dunnigan Hills AVA, was a key historical location for Zinfandel. Although today, the area (like Lodi) is giving way to more off-the-radar grapes like Tempranillo, Dolcetto, Viognier, and Marsanne.
- Oakley: Oakley is very dry and warm during the day, ripening the grapes before cooling off in the evening, thanks to the Sacramento Delta just to the North. Zinfandels here are all about plum, spice, pepper, and cranberry.
With vines dating back to the California Gold Rush (1848–1855), Zinfandel is the Sierra Foothills’ longest standing, most widely planted grape variety. Among the angular mountains between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite, in the Sierra foothills’ higher altitude vineyards (997–2,999 feet/304–914 meters), Zinfandel is grown on principally granitic soils. While styles and interpretations are far-ranging, they share a common ability to develop with grace over time. Sierra Foothills Zinfandels are frequently savory, often developing great elegance with aging.
- El Dorado: Tight and often intense when young, with pronounced cinnamon-tinged spice, velvety textures and layers of tar, anise, and conifer.
- Amador: The county epicenter of Zinfandel, led by the towns of Fiddletown and Plymouth in the Shenandoah Valley. Signature foothills Zinfandel features ripe red and occasionally black fruit, anise and spice, generous concentration and firm underlying architecture. Factoid: Planted in 1863, California’s oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard, the Original Grandpere (OGP), was planted in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley, about five miles northeast of Plymouth, by John Dale and Mahala Teter Upton, who like many others came to mine and stayed to farm.
Zinfandel Around the World
Below is a list of the principal areas associated with premium Zinfandel:
- France: Ardèche (rarely seen in appellation wines)
- Italy: Puglia (as Primitivo)
- Other European countries:
- Croatia (Tribidrag, Crljenak Kaštelanski), Montenegro (Kratošija), Macedonia
- Australia: South Australia (McLaren Vale, Barossa, Riverina), Western Australia (Margaret River), New South Wales (Mudgee)
- New Zealand: Hawkes Bay
- South Africa: Stellenbosch and Paarl
- Other Countries:
- Israel (Galilee)
- The Americas
- Uruguay: Canelones
- Chile: Colchagua
- Brazil: Rio Grande do Sul
- Mexico: Mexican Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe
- Canada: British Columbia (Okanagan Valley)
- USA (beyond California): Washington (Columbia Valley (Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla), Southern Oregon, Arizona, Texas and even Tennessee
- Uruguay: Canelones