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Thinking about Zin as summer slowly ends

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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.

  1. The 2009 Quivira RRV was a knockout of a value -often less than $20 here in the bay area.
    Additionally, the new “sub brand” of Nalle; Henderlong Nalle, has been outstanding since it’s first release in 2006

  2. As a huge fan of Zinfandel myself, and at the risk of sounding like a “snob,” I have to say that I finding very difficult to find Zins to like under the $25 price range. My favorites would have to be from Hartford Court (Dina’s Vineyard) and certain Ridge bottlings. With Ridge, however, I feel that they tend to be very hit or miss for my palate; when they hit though it can be out of sight! If I want rusticity it is hard to beat Zins from Coturri, though they have been accused of bottle variation caused by Tony’s extremely minimalist winemaking. I also find Turley’s to be packed full but remain balanced for such high alcohol; I would still recommend having more than two people before trying to finish a bottle @ 16%. These all lie in the $30-50 price range, but when I want a Zin nothing else will ease my cravings. Cheers!

  3. It is interesting that you think of Zinfandel in terms of regions like Dry Creek, Napa, etc. I tend to think of it being more vineyard specific. Papera, Hayne, Ueberroth, Montafi, etc. from producers like Carlisle, Bedrock and Turley.

  4. Mendo Zins in this conversation?

  5. Some of us like Russian River Zins too……

  6. Jim sez: “Mendo Zins in this conversation?”.

    Good point, Jim. Back in the good ole days (late ’70′s-early ’80′s) when JedSteele was making Zin at Edmeades (Ciapusci, Anzilotti, DuPratt, Zeni) and JimMilone/GregGraziano were making Zin at Milano; those were truly great Zinfandels,,,,as good as any made anywhere in Calif. Before that, BarneyFetzer, in the early ’70′s, was making truly great Zin from many of those same vnyds.
    So….why not MendoZins in this conversation??? Very good question I think. The old Zin vnyds up in the UkiahVlly and on MemdocinoRidge are the equal of any in all Calif. But the winemaking just doesn’t seem to measure up. Mendo is a real underachiever when it comes to Zins. Most of them are not “bad”….but I think many of them could be better…given the quality of the grapes they grow. They seem, to me, just too hit or miss. They need a kick in the seat of the pants I would say. I find a few pretty good ones now and then…but way too many unthrilling ones predominate.
    Recently had some from JohnChiarito that I really liked. Those Zins CaseyHartlip made were absolutely first-rate. Maybe if Tegan/Turley went into Mendo like they’re doing in the ShenandoahVlly, things would get shaken up a bit. Who knows??
    And whatta bout CoroMendocino?? What happened there??
    Tom

  7. And don’t forget the Sierra Foothills in south Placer County – Newcastle/Auburn area! Perfect terroir and gorgeous Zins that harken back to the original sentiment of a classic American Zinfandel.

  8. In addition to Mendocino, the Sierra foothills also produces worthwhile zinfandels. While zinfandels from the Mother Lode do tend to be beefy, several producers do release lighter claret-inspired interpretations, including Sobon/Shenandoah Vineyards in Amador County, Madrona and Miraflores in El Dorado County, and Milliare and Hovey in Calaveras County, among others. Check ‘em out.

  9. Great palates think alike? A few years ago I used the phrase “claret styled” Zins and my friends thought it to be an oxymoron. Frogs Leap used to do and so did Quivira with its special designated ones. For summertime ‘cues I’ve moved to dry Rose’s from any provenance—they palate cleanse better than Zins.

  10. Dear Mike Dunne and TomHill, it’s been several years since I lasted tasted Mendo or Sierra Foothills Zins, since that portfolio is now in Virginie Boone’s capable hands. So it would be inappropriate for me to comment on them.

  11. @Tom Lee: Good point!

  12. Claret style. That’s really well put. I also like these Zins the best. The Seghesio and Sbragia are fantastic. I also like the Rodney Knotty Vines but it’s a step below those two. My new favorites though are from Howell Mountain. All are in the claret style and are big but nuanced like the Howell Cabs. Top of my list: Robert Craig, Outpost, and Black Sears Vineyard. Craig also makes a very nice Rose from the same source (Black Sears).

    Steve, tried your bacon sandwich and it was a classic. Used black forest bacon and a touch of butter. May have found a great pair for this. Nuttiest Syrah I’ve ever had. On the nose, Italian roast coffee, hint of vanilla and … bacon! I couldn’t believe it. Never smelled bacon in a wine before. It’s a Plumpjack Syrah. Crazy bit of alchemy to pull that off.

  13. Bob, you’re right about Howell Mountain Zins. It’s the magic of that mountain. Also love the PlumpJack Syrah! But don’t eat too many of those bacon sandwiches. Cholesterol City!

  14. great article, it seems like very few wine critics really understand zinfandel. I think this blog could make a great article about the “Terroir of Zinfandel”. Since moving to Oregon in 2008, zinfandel is the first bottle I buy upon return to the Bay Area.

    I agree with your assesment of Napa and Dry Creek Zins…Storybook Mountain and Bella are two of my favorite wineries in the world. It’s a shame you don’t taste the Sierra Foothills wines, they offer the claret style for a fraction of the Napa price.

  15. Christopher says:

    Though I live in Paso Robles and work at a local winery, I have to confess that I am not a fan of much of the Zin produced here. It’s often too jammy, sweet, and raisiny (which customers love, sells faster than just about anything).

    That being said, Zins produced from vineyards along the famed Willow Creek road can truly be amazing. We’ve made two Zins from there and they are definitely more “claret” style.

  16. Mark McWilliams says:

    Steve,
    Great article and for the most part I’d say our taste in Zinfandel lines up with many of the regions and producers you mentioned. I’d also include an addition to your recommendations: Limerick Lane from the Russian River Valley. I’ve always followed the brand but honestly felt the wines never lived up to the potential of the site. The new owners, Jake and Alexis Bilbro, are pumping amazing life and energy into their old vines and the brand. The wines have a beautiful focus, clarity and finesse. They are some of the best examples of old vine Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley. Just my .02 Check ‘em out. Thanks for another thoughtful article!

  17. I was turned off to Zin in a major way because of the dominance of th jammer Zins. I have tried some excellent Mendocino Ridge examples, including the Woodhead. Hendry is also great in the restrained style.

  18. I think your description of DCV Zins as being “briary” and “brambly” is spot on. I also find the Syrahs of DCV as having some of those same characters such as the dry scent of undergrowth, warm berry, spicy, peppery, etc. Would you agree?

  19. Lise, I do agree, although I don’t quite know where that quality comes from.

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