Thinking about Zin as summer slowly ends
Summertime is Zinfandel time, of course, what with all the barbecues, and I’ve been enjoying my fair share. There are many styles of Zinfandel–always have been, which is one reason why it’s a little confusing to Americans. Even when I was coming up in the wine community, it was a common complaint that Zin was as hard to understand as Riesling. Would it be dry, sweet, hot, balanced, pink, white, oaky or even bubblegummy? You couldn’t know until you drank it.
My own preference, and the style I think works best across a range of foods, is what I call “claret style,” which is to say dry, not too high in alcohol, smooth and balanced. Napa Valley accomplishes it best, perhaps due to the climate, perhaps because winemakers there have mastered Cabernet Sauvignon, and the “claret style” of Zinfandel could also be called the “Cabernet style.” Storybook Mountain, Ravenswood’s Dickerson bottling and Chateau Potelle’s VGS are good examples.
I also admire Dry Creek Valley as a source of Zinfandel. In fact, in terms of high scores, mine probably veer more toward DCV than any other region in California. I often use the words “briary” and “brambly” to describe these Zinfandels. By them I mean a complex of qualities, both olfactory, taste-wise and textural. The bottom line is of a certain wild berry quality. If you’ve ever gone blackberry or black raspberry hunting on a hot summer day, you know the experience extends far beyond the taste in the mouth. There’s the warm dustiness of the dirt, which here in California, in summertime, is always dry and sere because it never rains. There’s the feral, dry scent of undergrowth: decaying leaves, crushed pine needles, humous and whatever wild plants grow nearby: chamomile, fennel, pepper things. A freshly picked berry, warm from its spot in the sun, oozes a fruity life savoriness that’s gone by the time it’s been crated and boxed for sale in the supermarket, or even the farmer’s market. It’s similar to plucking a sun-ripened tomato right off the vine: so sweet, almost like candy, a quality that disappears within moments after being picked. That briary brambly-ness is in the mouthfeel, too, a spicy, peppery, sandpapery quality, like dried nettles. This all makes for something wine writers sometimes call “rusticity,” a tricky word that can have dual meanings. Sometimes it’s a negative; when I use it in a positive sense, as with certain Zinfandels, I try to explain that it refers to something artisanal. It’s hard to describe all these sensations, but Dry Creek Valley Zins at their best display them, in wines from Seghesio, Ledson, Sbragia, Bella and Dry Creek Vineyard.
Alexander Valley Zins for me are more challenging because more variable. At their best, they seem round and mellow, sometimes a little hot in alcohol, but that’s Zin for you. The chief fault of Alexander Valley is a certain simplicity of structure; flavor isn’t hard to achieve, but depth is. Yet when done well–Bella again, Sausal at their best, Stuhlmuller, Rosenblum’s Harris Kratka Vineyard–they offer plenty of pleasure.
When it comes to Paso Robles Zinfandel, in my opinion the heat down there often gets the best of them. I don’t mind high alcohol if it’s balanced, but it does offend me when the wine tastes hot, overripe and porty. Don’t get me wrong, lots of people like this style. It’s not my preference, though. Which gets us into the question of “Should the critic give the wine a high score because he likes it, or because it’s a good example of its style and terroir?” Believe me, I ponder that everytime I taste a Paso Robles Zinfandel, and lots of other wines as well. I try to find a balance. I might say, “This is not a wine for everyone, but will have its fans” to alert readers that I’m trying to set aside my personal preferences and be objective.
Still and ultimately, it’s impossible for me, in passing an esthetic judgment on a wine, to entirely set aside my own preferences. It’s what readers expect me to do. They don’t want a bland, objective description of the wine without any guidance as to pleasure or its absence. That could be accomplished by a laboratory readout of pH, acidity and a breakdown of chemical constituents. Wouldn’t make interesting reading to many people, and would be useless except to a technologist. So in reviewing Zinfandel and everything else, it’s a balancing act between objectivity and subjectivity, and I think most people “get it.” The only ones who don’t are the nitpickers on either side who insist it has to be one or the other.