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ZINFANDELS

Zinfandel is California's "mystery grape".   Its origins are subject for debate, some claiming it may have come from Southern Italy where it's known as "Primitivo".  There are others who claim the variety might be from Yugoslavia or Hungary.  U.C. Davis grape guru Carole Meredith, using DNA profiling techniques, found a  match with Zinfandel and a Croatian grape called Crljenak.  Meredith's research suggests Primitivo and Zinfandel are clones of the same grape, however.  

Wherever it came from, California is now its home!

wpeB.jpg (10608 bytes)Widely planted in nearly every type of climate, California vintners have refined their winemaking of this wine over the years.  The grapes don't ripen evenly, meaning some fruit on a vine will be relatively "ready" to harvest, while other grapes within a bunch are not mature and high in acidity.  It was popular to wait for the green fruit to mature, by which time the mature fruit would dehydrate to the point of being raisined.  This made for some brain-buster, high alcohol wines.  Winemakers often bottle tannic, alcoholic monsters which were curious to "taste" but difficult to "drink". 

The Zinfandel market collapsed in the 1980s and some wineries abandoned making the wine altogether.  Some producers formed a promotional agency in hopes of reviving the flagging interest in Zinfandel.  This is called "ZAP" (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers") and they hold an annual tasting in San Francisco in January.   In 2013 at the annual San Francisco Zin-Fest, here were more than 250 wineries pouring Zinfandels.    Talk about a Bacchanalia!  
(They botched it in 2014, holding the trade event at an isolated location in Alameda, far from public transit and on a week day...far fewer tasters in attendance as a result!)

Some producers realize that Zinfandel is at its best when "drinkable".   Others, courting the critics, make wines for "tastings".  These are often high in alcohol, high in oak, high in tannin or all of the above.  I was showing off one of these big, blockbuster wines to some visiting Italian winemakers and they concluded the wine was "candy".  Served with grilled steaks, we couldn't finish this wine as it was not really meant for food.  It was made to clobber the competition in a wine tasting.  So, do you want a wine to drink or a wine for a wine-tasting?

wpeE.jpg (14301 bytes)Thanks to the aggressive promotion of Zinfandel and the fact that many winemakers are turning out good wines, consumer interest in Zinfandel is quite enthusiastic.  The name "ZAP" is ironic, as consumers wallets are likely to be "zapped" as prices for Zinfandel have escalated rapidly.

At the 2014 ZAP tasting, most Lodi Zins seemed to have $15-$40 price tags, while Dry Creek Zins seem to start around $25 a bottle.  Many Napa wines were in the $30-$75 range.  Some non wine-trade friends remarked "You know, Zinfandel used to be such a friendly wine.  It was very drinkable and it didn't cost a fortune.  Now everything seems so expensive!"

As someone who's accustomed to paying $10-$20 for a bottle of really good wine (Spain, France and Italy produce some splendid bottles in this category), prices can be viewed as being either optimistic or ambitious.  

In fact, after the ZAP tasting, we opened a bunch of bottles we'd been collecting for a staff tasting and found a superb, imminently drinkable Austrian Blaufränkisch which will cost $16.99.  I think I'd rather put that bottle on the table than most of the rocket fuel Zins I tasted!

GROWING AREAS
Grown around California, we favor the wines from Sonoma's Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys, along with Napa as the best sites for Zinfandel.  Good wines are coming from the Sierra Foothills, though many of these are a bit high in alcohol and lacking in elegance or finesse.  

Mendocino County offers some good Zinfandels and there are a few interesting vineyards in nearby Lake County, as well.  San Benito County sometimes offers a surprise, while Monterey seems less well-suited to this variety, but some noteworthy wines come from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo.  However, we find many of the wines from those regions tend to exhibit over-cropped, immature notes, while at the same time showing raisiny, pruney elements (the worst of both worlds!).  

California's Central Valley has something like 17,000 acres of Zinfandel.  A few decent wines are made from fruit grown near Lodi, but these are winegrowing and winemaking rarities.  The prices asked for many Lodi Zinfandels are optimistically high and I can't say there's much being made out that way that warrants our attention, though there are a few glimmers of hope here and there.

AGING ZINFANDELS
Having cellared Zinfandels for many years, our experience has shown that the wines which have relatively good (moderately high) levels of acidity tend to age the best.  A tasting of ten year old Zinfandels back in the 1980s was fascinating!  The wines which had the most notoriety from The Critics aged the poorest, while wines they overlooked (lighter in body and tannic, but higher in acidity) aged beautifully.   

Keep that in mind when someone urges you to buy a big, tannic Zinfandel to hold onto for ten or more years.  It's not the tannin alone which preserves the wine.  It's the acidity.  Few Zinfandels are worth holding on to for more than a few years and many might really be at their best within several years of the vintage. 

Zinfandel is made in virtually every style of wine imaginable. 

"White Zinfandel" came about as in the early 1970s, wine growers had planted red grapes to accommodate the growing demand from winedrinkers.  Coincidentally there was a big boom as the market grew when new winedrinkers, tired of the sweet "pop" wines of that era wanted something closer to "real" wine.  The Trinchero Family at Sutter Home winery in Napa, made a "white" Zinfandel with residual sugar and ended up being carried off in a tidal wave of fame and fortune for their product.  At that point in time, Sutter Home was viewed as a producer of "serious" Zinfandel, especially their noteworthy single vineyard wine (Deaver) from Amador County.  They just happened to be in the right place at the proverbial right time and made a fortune. 

Some producers turn out light, berryish Zins, ready for drinking months after the harvest.   Others devote substantial new oak-aging to their wines, creating big and important wines.  Some intentionally make dessert wines from Zinfandel.  Others don't,   finding their fermentation gets "stuck", leaving a slightly sweet wine with, typically, substantial alcohol.   Some of these are truly dessert wines, while others are only slightly sweet.  

We're fans of Zinfandels which are "drinkable."  Now this may sound a bit funny.  Of course we want wine that's drinkable!  As opposed to, what?  Bathing wine??

In tasting wine with some colleagues, one remarked "I used to look forward to our blind-tastings of Zinfandels.  Today I almost dread tasting flights of Zinfandel.  The wines have become monsters and are not made to have finesse or elegance.  Power and alcohol, along with sugar, seem to be what many vintners are bringing to the market."



 

Well, much Zinfandel is made for "wine tastings" more than for the dinner table.  There's a lot of high octane Zin on the market in all price categories.   Some wines seem to be made for the cocktail-drinking crowd.  These tend to be rather big, robust and potent.  Often they have a bit of sugar, too.   A recent line-up of Zins found a number of wines to have significant percentages of sugar.  I had written the words "port like" several times on my tasting sheets.  

It seems today we need to differentiate between "table wines" and "cocktail wines." 

Also...
Don't be fooled into thinking a costly bottle of Zinfandel is superior to something reasonably-priced.   The reason you "hire" a wine merchant is to guide you to wines which will appeal to your tastes.  


After the past decade of ZAP tastings I am amused and dismayed.  

Amused because some Zinfandels from winemakers with a few years-to-a-few decades' of history were really good, drinkable wines.

Dismayed because:

bulletSo many wines were made from dehydrated grapes...all you can taste is raisined fruit.  ((Don't call them "port-like," because Port is made from ripe, healthy fruit, not over-ripe grapes.))  It's all the more sad to hear some of these amateurs speak about "terroir."  When you pick grapes at such a late stage that they're (to my way of thinking) "damaged," it doesn't make a whole lot of difference whether the vineyard is located in Napa, Dry Creek, Lodi or Timbuktu.  They all taste relatively the same.
bulletWhen fruit is picked at such extreme ripeness, sometimes the fermentation "sticks" and wines have residual sugar.  This might be fine for some palates, but for those of us searching for a meal-time beverage, these wines are undrinkable.
bulletDid people imbibe too much when they came up with brands of wine such as "Twisted" or "Dancing Lady"?   Wine Guerilla?  Jelly Jar?  Zig Zag Zinfandel?  Z-52.  Zin Alley.  There were a few fellows dressed in clown costumes (perhaps appropriately so?) and some "flower children," dressed in the ZAP "theme" for this year.  I didn't notice if Bill Graham Presents was a sponsor, though.
bulletWhat makes a wine "worth" $30 to $50?  I was disappointed a new, small producer which advertises its wines on local radio wasn't there so I could taste a Zin for which they're asking $54.  New producer.  No track record.  Relatively unheralded appellation.  Fifty-four smackers.  Ouch!  


Check out the following page for some Zinfandels We Like........

CLICK HERE FOR ZINFANDELS WE LIKE (and more)

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