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Zinfandel: a balancing act

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I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Zinfandel over the years. Well, maybe “hate” is too strong a word. Let’s call it a love-dislike relationship.

The grape is notorious for uneven ripening, so that superripe flavors can co-exist right next to green, minty ones, giving some Zins a bizarre awkwardness. This danger makes growers wait until the last minute they can to pick Zin, to let it ripen. But that pushes them up against the rainy season. Ironically, the long wait, in California’s fickle climate, is just as likely to result in a heat wave, which nudges the sugars even higher and shrivels the grapes, giving the resulting wines a raisiny taste, and a bitterness in the finish. (All scores in this post are from my Wine Enthusiast reviews.)

In any event, most California Zinfandel is going to have high alcohol (unless the vintner spins it out or waters it down). I don’t personally have a prejudice against high alcohol wines, like a lot of critics do. If the alcohol works, it works. I’m not going to make analogies with heavy people who look good despite carrying extra pounds. Well, I guess I just did. But the high alcohol of, say, a Turley 2010 Hayne Vineyard Zin (15.8%, 93 points) succeeds; the heat becomes an integral part of the wine’s overall personality, as it does in a proper Port, providing warmth and glyceriney softness but without that blistering blast of Serrano chile that some other high-octane Zins give. I frequently encounter this problem with Mazzocco Zins, whose alcohol levels are in the same, 15-plus neighborhood. Why the Turley gets away with it while Mazzocco doesn’t is a mystery to me, but Turley generally does.

Then there are some Zins that are considerably lower in alcohol and thus have what I call a claret-like texture. I described Gary Farrell’s 2010 Bradford Mountain Zin, from Dry Creek Valley (14.3%, 92 points) as having a “velvety style of Merlot,” not because there was anything remotely Merlot-like about its briary wild berry flavors, but because it possessed a delicacy in the mouth despite the considerable volume–a feminine character, if you will. A Zinfandel similar in style, but from much farther away, is Frog’s Leap’s 2010, with a Napa Valley address (13.7%, 91 points). It is one of the only below-14% Zins I’ve tasted lately, and one of the few I could describe by the phrase “tart acidity.” Very good and savory.

Between these two brackets of high alcohol and modest alcohol lies the spectrum of Zinfandel. You might say that somewhere right in the middle is the sweet spot, and, in fact, the majority of the Zins I give 90-plus scores to have alcohol levels in the range of 14.5%-14.8% (if the label is to be believed). A few classic examples are the Elyse 2009 Black-Sears Vineyard, from Howell Mountain (14.6%, 93 points), Williams Selyem 2010 Bacigalupi Vineyard, from Russian River Valley (14.7%, 93 points) and Seghesio’s 2010 Cortina, from Dry Creek Valley (14.8%, 93 points). All of these are very fine examples of spicy, robust, fruity, yet balanced and elegant Zinfandel.

As for the best appellations for Zinfandel, there’s no question about it: Sonoma County and its various sub-AVAs and Napa Valley and its sub-AVAs. Paso Robles produces a lot of Zin, but except for selected producers, like Turley, Ridge, Eberle and, occasionally, Peachy Canyon, they haven’t yet zoned in on the balance thing. It’s so easy to get Zin ripe in a hot climate, but getting it balanced is something else.

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