For the wine lover, nothing out does the thrill of discovery, except, perhaps, the thrill of rediscovery. I refer, of course, to the triumphant return of the red zinfandel.

Red zinfandel is California's most unabashedly original creation, a smorgasbord of spicy, berry-like fruit, usually set off by a healthy dose of tannin. The zinfandel's intensity of fruit can be truly extraordinary, perhaps the cleanest and most direct fruit of any variety. Zinfandel still sells for ridiculously low prices, with many excellent examples in the $8 to $12 range.

Yet, just a short while ago, this classic American varietal seemed to be on the road to extinction. Consumers, it was said, wanted French varietals -- cabernet, merlot and pinot noir. Or, it was said, they really wanted white wines, such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or nondescript generic blends labeled chablis. In reality, what they didn't want was zinfandel, particularly in the style to which California's wine makers had hoped to make them accustomed.

Zinfandel production had become a race to see who could make not the best wine, but the biggest. In the decade of the 1970s, Napa, Sonoma and the rest of the Golden State were busy churning out monster zinfandels, massive wines with head-spinning alcohol levels and enough tarry extract to repave the Santa Monica freeway. Bunches were left to ripen on the vine as late as possible, which had the effect of raising the sugar levels, introducing a dose of botrytis ("noble rot") and accentuating the unevenly ripening zinfandel's pronounced tendency to shrivel and raisin.

Many examples resembled port more than a dinner wine, with alcohol levels approaching 17 percent. That some fine, well-balanced zinfandels were being made in a lighter, claret or beaujolais style only made matters worse. So many styles of zinfandel were crowding the shelf that no one knew for sure what to expect when the cork was popped. Consumers finally gave up and abandoned the once-promising red varietal in droves.

As sales nose dived, thousands of acres of zinfandel vines -- including many acres of fine old gnarled and ancient ones, predating the post-Prohibition rebirth of the California wine industry -- were uprooted or budded over (the grafting of a different variety to an existing rootstock). Many top wineries quietly stopped producing zinfandel altogether. Much of the remaining production found its way into jug wines, where it made a major, but largely unheralded contribution to the quality of some of the top offerings, most notably Gallo's Hearty Burgundy.

The slow drift to obscurity might have continued indefinitely had it not been for the introduction of so-called white zinfandel. White zinfandel is made by taking ordinary red zinfandel grapes, separating the skins, which contain most of the color and tannin, and making a wine out of just the pulp. Though it began as a desperation move by a winery awash in unsold zinfandel grapes, "white zin," as it has come to be known, ended up as the wine-marketing coup of the decade. From a trickle in 1977, yearly production by its inventor Sutter Home has reached well over 2 million cases, and many other wineries have followed that success with offerings of their own.

The generally nondescript blush wine has its detractors, but there is no doubt that it gave its red brethren a second chance. White zinfandel started a whole generation of wine drinkers, many of whom had never tasted zinfandel before, asking for zinfandel again. One winery representative tells of offering two elderly ladies a free sample of red zinfandel at a recent in-store Washington tasting. "Oh, how nice," said the first to the second as she loaded several bottles in her cart, "they make it in red too."

White zinfandel's popularity wouldn't have made much difference, however, had wine drinkers not liked what they found when they tasted the red. What they discovered was that red zinfandel had cleaned up its act. Instead of the monsters from the past, zinfandel was now a wine that was made to enjoy, instead of to impress. Though it remains a wine that is decidedly robust in most cases, today's zinfandels no longer assault the palate.

The chief difference is the nature of the tannins. For several years now, leading wine makers have claimed that they have learned to make wines with "soft" tannins. More than all the claims of the experts, it is the character of the present generation of zinfandels that convinces me that this skill has truly been acquired. The new "soft zins" still have plenty of tannins, but they roll over the palate instead of grating on it. The result is a harmony between the fruit and tannin, a wine that can be savored, rather than resisted.

Besides the new soft-tannin style, it should also be noted that many other zinfandels today are made in a lighter, fruity, beaujolais style. These lighter zinfandels are superior to the California beaujolais made from the French gamay grape and can be very enjoyable.

Most zinfandels are at their best served with heartier grilled red meats or stews. Warm and generous, they are a perfect choice for winter meals and most have the aging potential to last until next winter or beyond.

The following list of the top zinfandels is in order of preference, based on recent tastings. The first two groups clearly stood out from the mass of zinfandels now on the market. The third group is made up of lower-priced wines that, while not measuring up to wines in the top groups, are well made and offer excellent value. Within each of the groups, quality differences are minor. Most wines are widely available, and your retailer can order a wine for you from the wholesaler listed in brackets (Maryland and Virginia distribution may differ). Prices are approximate.

Highly Recommeded Ridge "Geyserville" 1985 ($15): Ridge's legendary Paul Draper continues to perfect the art of zinfandel making. This masterful effort from the old Geyserville vineyard has layer upon layer of rich black cherry fruit, incredible length and abundant soft tannins. This winery, along with Ravenswood (see next), is the premiere cru of zinfandel. (Wines Limited)

Ravenswood "Sonoma County" 1985 ($10 to $11): Wonderfully deep, lush, abundant berry-like fruit set off by light spice notes and well-balanced, unobtrusive oak. Beautifully rendered; medium-weight style. The purity of the fruit is sensational. (Limited local availability)

Sausal "Alexander Valley Private Reserve" 1980 ($13): Spectacular showing against the top big-name zinfandels made by this offering from an obscure family-owned winery; unusually dark, crimson color for an 8-year-old wine; rich, fleshy, luscious fruit, smoky American oak notes on bouquet and palate. Old-style zinfandel at its best. (Hand Picked Selections, Beitzell)

Kendall-Jackson "Ciapusci Vineyard" 1985 ($10): Explosively fruity, bright berry-like flavors; walks the fine line between the rich, more classic style of zinfandel and the more modern, beaujolais style and carries it off with aplomb. Fine, original style. (Kronheim)

Recommended Amador Foothill Winery 1983 "Eschen Vineyard"; Amador Foothill Winery 1983 "Grand-Pere Vineyard" (each $9): Two excellent examples of the powerful and distinctive Amador county style. The Grand-Pere is sleek, clean and deeply fruity. The Eschen is even better: rich, opulent and heady in a more classic Amador county style. (DOPS/Quality Beverage in D.C.)

Kenwood "Sonoma Valley" 1984 ($9): Spicy, exuberant fruit jumps from the glass; smooth finish; a very polished effort that offers superb value. Another Kenwood original. (Forman)

A. Rafanelli "Dry Creek Valley" 1985 ($8): Another example of why zinfandel is so hard to beat for value today. Tremendous, ripe mulberry-like flavors on a big, more traditional scale that suggests a top co~te ro~tie as much as a California offering. (Wines Limited)

Ridge "York Creek" 1984 ($15): Refined and silky, well-rendered fruit; rather oaky but very fine and stylish. (Wines Limited)

Storybook Mountain 1985 "Napa Valley" ($11): Intense, spicy bouquet, loads of lush fruit over a tight, tannic core; will benefit from short-term aging but can be enjoyed now with red meat dishes. (MacArthur Beverages)

Frog's Leap "Napa Valley" 1985 ($10): Stylish, well-made wine, abundant fruit flavors. Medium-bodied style makes it a versatile food match. Excellent. (International)

Coturri "Sonoma Valley" 1985 ($8 to $9): Attractive, tarry scents on nose; deep, fleshy plummy, fruit; well-structured and rich. Terrific, more traditional-style zinfandel. (Vintage)

Rosenblum Cellars "Sonoma" 1986 ($11): Very dark purple; a trifle jammy, but lush and thoroughly enjoyable for its generous fruit. (Franklin Selections)

Rutherford Ranch "Napa" 1985 ($7 to $9): Big and just a bit aggressive, this is, nonetheless, an enjoyable zinfandel that packs a tremendous wallop of fruit. (Bacchus)

Recommended Lower-Priced Zinfandels Guenoc 1984 ($6): Spicy, perfumed, maturing bouquet; light to medium bodied with surprising complexity and an excellent finish; a well-made, food-oriented zinfandel. (Forman)

Ravenswood "Vintner's Blend" 1985 ($6): Perfect everyday zinfandel; rich, fruity and ready now. (MacArthur Beverages)

Sutter Home "California" 1985 ($5 to $6): Better known for its Amador bottling, this regular bottling still has some Amador wine in the blend and is smooth, clean, fruity and delightful. (International)

Kendall-Jackson Mendocino 1986 ($7): Clearly in the beaujolais style, exuberantly fruity and never heavy, a perfect quaffing wine. (Kronheim)

Fetzer 1986 "Lake County" ($6): Solid and well made; some good spicy notes and clean, open-knit, fresh fruit. (Kronheim)

Whaler Vineyard "Estate Bottled" 1986 ($8 to $9): Fresh, fruity style; slight earthiness gives character. (Hand Picked Selections)

Wine Briefs Many wine consumers find German wines, with their profusion of labels, degrees of sweetness and grape varieties, utterly confusing. Once understood, however, German wine labels provide more specific information about the wine inside than those of any other country, including our own. To help consumers untangle the terminology and to convey much other useful information, the German Wine Information Bureau offers two free, nicely illustrated booklets, "A Short Guide to German Wines" and the shirt-pocket sized "German Wines at a Glance." They may be obtained by sending your name and address to the Bureau at 79 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.