California’s new Golden Age of Zinfandel
California is producing some of the greatest Zinfandels ever. Indeed, we’re in a Golden Age of Zinfandel. Although planted acreage of it has barely budged over the last ten years–from 47,000 acres in 2001 to 48,000 acres in 2010–acreage in such prime coastal counties as Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and San Luis Obispo has crept upward, fueling the drive toward quality.
For decades, as wine historians know, Zinfandel suffered from an identity crisis worse than any other variety in California, and matched only by that of German Riesling. If nobody knew what to expect from a Mosel or Rhinegau–sweet? dry? off-dry?–for Zinfandel the possibilities were positively bizarre. Not only the sweet-or-dry conundrum, but would it be impossibly tannic? High in alcohol, even approaching port? There was a brief moment when vintners used the carbonic maceration on Zinfandel bunches, same as in Beaujolais; I used to like it (freshy, fruity, zippy wines with a hint of gassy bubblegum) but in retrospect I can see that it was a circus freak. Zinfandel might have been white (and still might be), it might have been pink, it might have been fortified. Identity crisis, indeed.
A few houses, classically oriented, always turned out balanced Zinfandels, the kind sometimes referred to as “claret-style.” Pedroncelli, Louis M. Martini, Sutter Home, Joseph Swan, Foppiano, Montelena, Buena Vista, Clos du Val, Ridge, Grand Cru, Sebastiani–they kept the Zin flame burning, although in many instances, those wineries have gone through substantive changes today, so that one cannot say the same thing.
Pinot Noir often is referred to as the heartbreak grape, the hardest one to grow properly and vinify correctly. This is largely true, but Zinfandel will brook no challengers in the difficulty sweepstakes. It is far harder to get Zinfandel right than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. Zinfandel is a notoriously uneven ripener: on the same bunch you might find shriveled grapes, green grapes and perfectly ripened berries. This is the chief difficulty, and is why so many Zinfandels are so unbalanced. A good Zinfandel has a purity of aroma. One sniff is all it takes to know that here is a lovely wine. The wine often is said to be “briary” and/or “brambly.” I myself use these terms (when applicable), to some extent interchangeably; and I use them to describe, at various points in the tasting experience, the aroma, or the flavor, or the mouthfeel. By these terms I mean to suggest the quality of a walk through the California countryside on a hot summer day. It could be on the sunny fringe of a dense Redwood forest on the Sonoma Coast, or in a benchland of the Sierra Foothills, under a brutal August sun. You are alert to the smells of the earth: the baked, dry dust under your feet, crumbling Douglas fir needles, pine cones, the mentholly sharpness of eucalyptus, a waft of ripe red and black wild berries. If you come across a berry patch, stick your nose as close as you can and sniff: that is the briary, brambly quality. You experience it in the chimney of your head, not quite aroma, not quite taste, but both, and tingly, like a whiff of white pepper. That is Zinfandel’s hallmark. Amerine and Singleton, in Wine (1967) described Zinfandel as being a variety “with a distinguishable varietal aroma”, although they did not describe what it was. Around the same time, in General Viticulture, professors Winkler, Cook, Kliewer and Lider repeated the meme, referring to Zinfandel’s “characteristic varietal flavor” but offering no further elaboration. But then, all of these writers were from U.C. Davis; academic prudence kept them from writing too subjectively.
The best Zinfandels I’ve had over the past year have been from Seghesio, Ravenswood, De Loach, Storybook Mountain, Ledson, Sbragia (well, Ed’s Zins are perhaps a bit too muscular to be called “claret-style,” but they’re very good), St Francis, Bella, Sausal and a nice Francis Ford Coppola 2009 “Director’s Cut,” at $24 a bargain. Geographically, they hail from the North Coast’s best valleys. What you look for in a well-grown Zinfandel are small clusters of evenly-ripened berries. The vineyard often will have a slope to it, and the ground will not suffer if the dirt is volcanic red; smell it, look for trace elements of minerals, candle wax, iodine, baking spices. So much the better if the vines are head-trained and dry-farmed. But look, too, for wild berries around the vineyard’s periphery, perhaps in a nearby stream bed. Zinfandel is a product of its ecosystem; it speaks terroir as purely as any variety, although the voice is baritone, not Pinot’s pure tenor.