Red Zinfandel vs White Zinfandel: Differences Explained

Although both are made from the same dark-skinned purple grape that originated in Croatia, Red Zinfandel and White Zinfandel differ in process and harvest, flavor and popularity.

Let’s take a closer look at what separates the rich Red from its rosy White offspring.

Red Zinfandel vs White Zinfandel Differences Explained

Red Zinfandel vs White Zinfandel: Process

Before the late 1940s, only Red was made from the Zinfandel grape.

Then, literally by mistake, White Zinfandel made its debut at California’s Sutter Homes’ vineyard when a Red Zinfandel batch was skimmed of some of its juice to let the fruit emit a richer, deeper hue.

But unexpectedly, the “discarded” pink liquid became the star of the show, and its inexpensive, signature production process spread throughout the winemaking world. White Zinfandel was born, not as a white wine (as the name suggests), but as a rosé.

Today, the purposeful technique starts with how the grape is handled.

If White Zinfandel is the goal, the juice is squeezed from the fruit’s skin before the yeast is added to break down the sugars into alcohol (otherwise known as fermentation).

But not just any fermentation.

The mixture experiences stuck fermentation (yet another unanticipated event that added to the wine’s easy-to-sip style), where the yeast just dies midway through and leaves behind a sweeter, less alcoholic brew.

Red Zinfandel, on the other hand, is fermented with the skins on (which gives it its deep red tint), then the juice is squeezed out.

But unlike the White’s stopped yeast/sugar step, the creamier texture and taste of the robust Red is achieved using malolactic fermentation.

Just as the name implies, the malic acid in the grapes are mellowed by converting it into a softer lactic acid, reducing the bitterness and releasing some carbon dioxide.

But how it’s made isn’t the only differentiator.

Where the berry is grown and when it’s picked can also be a factor in whether it will make a Red or White Zinfandel.

Red Zinfandel vs White Zinfandel: Harvest

Most White Zinfandels are made in California, South Africa, Australia, Mexico, and Croatia … and for good reason.

The juicy grapes destined to be labeled as the sweet rosé are grown in warm, fertile vineyards.

The plants are large and prolific, producing 15 tons per acre of the deep purple fruit, and are plucked early to keep the sugar content low and the acid high for a lighter, crisper finished wine.

Though the grapes for Red Zinfandel are also grown in warm climates like California, Apulia (Italy), and Dalmatia (Croatia), when they’re harvested is what distinguishes them from their pink successor.

The grapes hang on the vine 3-4 weeks longer than those earmarked for White Zinfandel, producing lower yields (1-3 tons per acre) of very ripe, sweet berries.

Surprisingly, however, the sweeter grapes from the start don’t necessarily make a sugary product in the end.

Red Zinfandel vs White Zinfandel: Flavor

The taste of Red and White Zinfandel is distinctly different.

The ruby red wine is drier (though, it can also be sweet) has notes of jam, blueberry, cranberry, plum, cherry, black pepper, and licorice.

As it passes by over the taste buds, there’s a rush of candied fruit, followed by a hint of spice, then finished with a tobacco-like smokiness.

With more residual sugar, White Zinfandel is sweeter than its deeper Red counterpart (even the sugary varieties).

Its crisper, lighter texture is also the perfect base to extenuate the hints of strawberries and watermelon, pears and pineapple, or blackberry and cherry or dried herbs, spices, and sweet oak notes.

Some prefer the White for its low astringency and tannins, with a bold, dry finish.

But if a vino on the higher end of the sweetness scale isn’t your thing, California’s favorite Red may be just what your decanter ordered.

Red Zinfandel vs White Zinfandel: Popularity

When White Zinfandel first experienced stuck fermentation in the 1970s, it took the world by storm.

The easy-to-drink, inexpensively produced wine was being distributed by vineyards everywhere, making it the most sought after choice by newbies and connoisseurs alike.

That was, until it was offered in a convenient, portable box in the 80s. Vino aficionados started to snub the popular rosé, and its reputation began to tumble.

Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a not-as-sweet rendition became the “millennial pink” of choice … and once again, White Zinfandel came back into favor.

And although, it continues to have its critics, the lower-priced White still accounts for 10% of all U.S. wine sales at just shy of $1 billion annually — six times what Red brings in.

But don’t count Red Zinfandel completely out.

As far as the Red category, Zinfandel tops the charts of the most popular grape variety in the States (and is one step more well-liked than Malbec from Argentina).

Its competition outside the U.S.? As expected, the berries that grow on the rolling hills of the French countryside: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Merlot.

Now that you know the differences between White and Red Zinfandel, which will you choose?

Emma Miller