Pairing Zinfandel with Food


Excerpt from an upcoming IWR report on California Zinfandel: A New Look

Zinfandel is a versatile and expressive varietal. There are several styles of Zinfandel on the market which pair beautifully with a wide variety of dishes. The bold dark- fruited flavors of Zins make them ideal for pairing with beef dishes, provided the wines are not overly ripe and alcoholic. More moderately red-fruit flavored, spicy and well-balanced Zins are wonderful with lamb, pork and poultry and shine with pizza and pasta dishes. Zins also pair well with different cheeses as part of a meal or on their own.

There are many good sources of information and recommendations on pairing Zinfandel with food. Some consist of recipes for a wide variety of dishes that pair well with Zinfandel; others evaluate the pairing of selected dishes with different Zinfandels according to their flavors and styles. In what follows we combine the two approaches drawing upon recipes in the public domain and the results of our own pairings and the parings of others whose judgments we value.1

Before offering our recommendations on the pairing of Zinfandels with food, we present here a listing of the different styles of the premium Zinfandels on the market.

Styles of Zinfandel

Light and Medium-Bodied

Light and medium-bodied Zinfandels are fruit forward and light to medium weight. The better-made ones reveal ripe red and/ or black fruit with flavors of cherries, raspberries, blueberries, red plum, and cranberries. They also show the spicy nature of the varietal with hints of sweet oak, licorice and a persistent finish. Top of the line wines capture complexity, balance. etc. . Alcohol levels ALVs are generally within 14-5-14.8 but can get up to the 15s

Bold and Lush

Rich and dense; bold and lush with intense fruit flavors and firm and ample tannins. Ripe grapes even syrupy, Rich and flavorful The full-bodied Zinfandel is typically produced from vineyards with very old vines and often with very ripe or slightly overripe grapes even syrupy Intense red and black fruit with flavors of blackberries, blueberries, plum, cranberries, licorice. More oak aged, French and American, higher percentage of new oak. Single vineyard

Old Vines

These Zinfandels are crafted from old vines planted as far back as the 1880s. However most vines are between the ages of l00 and 65 years old and are head-pruned and dry-farmed yielding 1-2 tons per acre or less. Most are unique reflecting their terroir offering flavors of black cherry, black berry, and raspberry. They are often field blends of mixed black like Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Carignan and other varieties, often obscure. Old Vines are generally densely flavored and earthy with hints of dried fruit, spice, and minerals.





Zinfandel pairs magnificently with beef and you can hardly go wrong choosing Zinfandel to drink with a Charcoal broiled rib-eye steak, or Rib-eye steak au poivre, New York strip steak, filet mignon or other grilled meats. If you are having a thick cut that is crusty and charred you would do well to select a bold flavored Zinfandel with good density, and tannic grip. Zinfandel also pairs beautifully with other grilled meats such as Beef kabobs, Grilled Asian Beef Kebabs, or Shish Kebabs.

Zinfandel also pairs well with roast beef, beef stroganoff, braised short ribs of beef and other cuts for braising and barbecuing such as brisket, skirt steak or flank steak. Zinfandel can go well with these dishes if they don’t overwhelm the savory character of the preparations with spice and oak.



If you are serving grilled hamburgers or chili burgersat home or ordering them in a restaurant, you can enjoy them with moderately priced medium-weight zins that have some spice but not a lot of oak which might risk dominating the burger. On the other hand, if your hamburger combines ground sirloin with ground brisket you might want to pair this classy hamburger with a reliable old vine Zinfandel. Sirloin Burgers with Blue Cheese and Arugula and Chile con Carneare other dishes that pair beautifully with all styles of Zinfandel. Chili con Carneis another dish that pairs beautifully with Zinfandels of all styles and types. Try also Vegan Chili.




BBQ Baby Back Ribs and Zinfandel is a heavenly combination. But one needs to take into account how the ribs were prepared and what rubs and sauces were used. A little know-how will prove useful In making the correct pairing, Korean BBQ Short Rib. Sweet or spicy sauce will work. Roast Pork Loin, pork shoulder, pork chops can all be paired with light to medium-styled Zinfandels.


Succulent roast boneless pork loin is one of the best pairings for this style. Pork with prunes and Zinfandel are divine. Pulled Pork with North Carolina Style Barbecue Sauce; Medium Zinfandels also go well with Smoked Sausage Jambalaya and Pork Skewers with Spicy Red Wine Marinade. You might also try Pork Tonkatsu, a Japanese dish served with richly spiced curry sauce. The spice and savory sweet quality of this dish make it an ideal pairing partner for Zinfandel.


Rack of Lamb


Rack of Lamb and Zinfandel pair beautifully, if the lamb is kept juicy, tender and rare and the wine is medium to full-bodied red. Darker fruited Zins with intense blackberry fruit would not be as good for pairing rack of lamb as red fruited wines, especially if the lamb is medium to rare doneness. Lamb chops with Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce would probably pair best with a red fruity Zinfandel. Lamb Burgers pair well with the medium-bodied Zinfandel as do Lamb Stew and Lamb Shepherd’s Pie. One of the more exciting dishes to pair with Zinfandel is Roasted Bone-In Leg of Lamb.

There are many different ways to season a leg of lamb for roasting. The one we like for Zinfandel is a paste of garlic olive oil and rosemary. We also like to serve it with root vegetables. Roast Leg of Lamb with Anchovies also goes beautifully with Zinfandel. Braised Lamb Shanks with Mint-Parsley Pesto is another savory dish for pairing with Zinfandel for a festive holiday like Passover. You might also try Spring Lag Stew (Navarin Printaniere)

Grilled Chicken



Zinfandel and BBQ or Grilled Chicken pair well together, provided the BBQ sauce doesn’t overwhelm the wine and the bold lush fruitiness of the wine doesn’t overwhelm the chicken. Fried Chicken can also pair well with Zin.

Pasta and Italian Specialties


Zinfandels pair extremely well with pasta dishes. Light to medium style Zins pair best with simple preparations of pasta with olive oil, herbs and vegetables, like Roasted Butternut Squash. Bigger Zins do well with hearty dishes like Spaghetti and Meat Balls or Lasagna Likewise, Italian Sausages with Green Peppers and Onions pair beautifully with all styles of Zinfandel.



Pairing Zinfandel with seafood is challenging, to say the least. However, there are some interesting possibilities, provided the wine is not overly fruity and has good acidity. Our friends at Rombauer offer a spectacular recipe for Gumbo made with a dark roux, onion, green bell pepper and spicy Anndouille Sausage or tasso ham combined with shrimp, crab, and briny oysters.

Cheeses and Dessert




Zinfandel helps cheeses shine. Try medium and bold Zins with strong and rich cheeses like Blue, Feta, Stilton, Double Gloucester, Aged Gruyere, Havarti, Gorgonzola, Parmesan and Cheddar.

Summary Tips on Pairing Zinfandel and Food
  1. Keep in mind there are different styles of Zinfandel. Learning about their characteristics will help you select ideal pairing of the wine with food.
  2. Try a variety of the Zins from top producers reviewed in this report for pairing with your next meals
  3. Marinating meat with Zinfandel will add to the flavor of the dish and enhance the spicy character of the wine
  4. When preparing stews or Daubes with wine, use Zinfandel and pair it with the same wine or an even better one for the meal
  5. Zinfandels love most smoked meats
  6. Spiced BBQ and curry are divine with Zinfandel
  7. Zinfandel is a good foil to edgier flavors like soy, sweet and sour even wasabi
  8. Avoid cream sauce, fish, oysters, seafood, shellfish

Cabernet and Zinfandel as Food Wines

How do Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon compare as food wines? In general, both are excellent food wines, although Zinfandel is probably more versatile. Zinfandel has a broad and diverse flavor profile ranging from blackberry, boysenberry black cherry and plum. Cabernet Sauvignon offers more blackberry and cassis although some reveal black cherry and plum similar to Zinfandel. One of the main differences between the two is their fruitiness. Zinfandel is a flavorful and juicy wine that reveals considerable fruitiness and gusto on the attack and on the mid-palate while Cabernet Sauvignon is generally more restrained and refined on the palate. Zinfandels often exhibit high alcohol along with their fruitiness, although top quality Zinfandel is well-balanced. California Cabernet Sauvignon is also high in alcohol but the best ones exhibit good extract, acids and tannins that are in balance with alcohol.

1 See Andrew Dorenburg and Karen Page What to Drink with What you Eat ( New York: Bullfinch Press) pp.277-278; Zinfandelic, Rombauer Vineyard's Zinfandel Recipe Pairings


Mike Potashnik and Don Winkler

February 2016