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.
We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.
Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.
I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.
Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.
Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.
Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.
I reviewed fewer than 300 Zinfandels last year, which is about average for me. There isn’t all that much premium Zin bottled in California’s coastal regions, which is my beat. I no longer cover the vast Sierra Foothills—Virginie Boone does that—and I miss tasting those hearty, heady Zins.
Zinfandel accounted for 8.9% of all grapes crushed in California in 2011, giving it third place (after Cab and Chardonnay). While California acreage of Zinfandel is very wide—the #2 most planted red wine grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon—a lot of it is in the Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus and Merced, and most of that fruit or bulk wine goes into jugs or boxes of inexpensive blends.
I suspect a lot more good Zinfandel could be produced along the coast, from the Russian River-Sonoma Coast and Napa Valley, down through the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Luis Obispo right into Santa Barbara. But growers and vintners have to look at the business side of things, and Zinfandel just doesn’t sell. It fetched a statewide average of only $443 per ton in 2011, actually one of the lowest for any variety, including Teroldego, Tannat, Calabrese, Gamay and Lemberger. Only a few truly execrable varieties—Ruby Cabernet, Rubired and Refosco among them—were cheaper than Zinfandel. (The average cost per ton of Cabernet, by contrast, was $1,029.)
Still, wineries who have long been committed to Zinfandel remain steadfast; no one, to my knowledge, who has produced Zin for any length of time has voluntarily given it up. The North Coast counties of Napa and Sonoma perform best. In my mind, Napa Valley Zinfandel is more finely crafted, more balanced and nuanced than Sonoma County Zinfandel, but I suppose you could call that a fault rather than a virtue. If you’re looking for classically brawny Zins, spicy, briary and heady, it’s Sonoma you look to.
Zinfandel for me is one of those wines that can’t quite decide whether it’s noble or common. In a great one, the aroma, the entry or attack, the complexity, the balance, the finish all are there, yet something at the last minute detracts. It’s like seeing someone very glamorous and well-dressed at the Opera with a piece of toilet paper stuck to their heel. The best Zinfandel I ever tasted was the Hartford Court 2007 Highwire Vineyard, Russian River Valley, which I gave 96 points four years ago. It was very high in alcohol (15.5%). I wrote “It should be in a museum” because of its classic Sonoma-ness. Yet even that wine, great as it was, was a little country, a handsome rube with hay in its hair.
Here are some of my top Zins of 2012, with their appellations:
Bella 2009 Barrel 32 (94 points, $48, Sonoma County)
Elyse 2009 Black-Sears Vineyard (93, $37, Howell Mountain)
Turley 2010 Tofanelli Vineyard (93, $34, Napa Valley)
Oakville Winery 2010 Estate (93, $25, Oakville)
Summers 2009 Four-Acre (93, $34, Calistoga)
Williams Selyem 2010 Bacigalupi Vineyard (93, $50, Russian River Valley)
De Loach 2009 OFS (93, $30, Russian River Valley)
John Tyler 2007 Bacigalupi Vineyard (92, $38, Russian River Valley)
Sausal 2009 Century Vines (92, $40, Alexander Valley)
Chateau Potelle 2009 VGS (92, $65, Mount Veeder)
On the “Comments” section of my Reader Survey (you can click here to access it, and I hope you will if you haven’t already), a respondent wrote:
“Steve, I enjoy reading your blog, but would like to see more coverage of less known wineries. Today it was about Williams Seylem. It seems everyone writes about them. I’d like to see coverage of folks and wineries that others don’t write about. Also, your coverage of Zinfandel is poor at best. This is such an important wine in our state and in the country as a whole. And I don’t mean another story about Ridge. There are a lot of interesting things being done by small producers…”
I’m impervious to mindless criticism, but when the jabs are justified, I hear them. And this reader is justified. So here’s a post about Zinfandel.
He’s right that Zinfandel is an important wine in California. There were 48,354 acres of it planted in 2011, making it the second most-widely grown red variety, after Cabernet Sauvignon, at 79,290 acres. The two counties growing the most Zin were San Joaquin (19,340, or nearly 40% of the statewide total), and Sonoma (5,349 acres, or 11% of all Zin in California). I suspect that most of that Central Valley Zin disappears into inexpensive jug and boxed red wines, while most of the Sonoma fruit goes into premium varietal bottlings.
There were 345,168 tons of Zinfandel crushed in 2011, making it the second most-heavily crushed red wine, again after Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s interesting that Cabernet, at 384,301 tons, beat Zin by only a little, compared to its vast dominance in acreage. I conclude from this that all that Zinfandel in the Central Valley is heavily cropped. Growers are growing it to sell cheaply, so they allow those vines to bear as much fruit as they can.
The first Zinfandel I still have a record of drinking was a 1976 Wine and the People, with a “Sonoma” [neither county nor valley] appellation. This was before the U.S. had an official AVA system. The alcohol was 13.5%, and the retail price, in 1979, was $10. Not exactly cheap for that period. In my note I called it “strong and spicy.” I liked it a great deal and drank it with steak. A month later I had a Ridge 1976 Lytton Springs Zinfandel that set me back $8. It was from the vineyard on the east side of Dry Creek Valley, almost in Alexander Valley.
When I was learning about wine, the conventional wisdom was that Sonoma County produced the best Zinfandels. (Well, a lot of people argued for the Sierra Foothills, and Amador County specifically, but once I became exposed to them, I often found them a little too hot and sweet for my tastes.) I like a Napa Valley style of Zinfandel, which I find drily elegant, as exemplified by wineries such as Storybook Mountain, Rubicon’s Edizione Pennino, Schulz Lampyridae from Howell Mountain, and V. Sattui’s Black-Sears, also from Howell Mountain. But Sonoma County, and in particular Dry Creek Valley, really star. Some great larger producers are De Loach, Hartford, Seghesio and Ravenswood.
Here are some smaller Zin producers who have impressed me in recent years: Zichichi (Dry Creek Valley), Tres Vinicultores (Sonoma County AVA), Bella (also Sonoma County), Phipps (Dry Creek Valley), Bluenose (Dry Creek), Sanctuary (Mendocino Ridge), Black Sears (Howell Mountain, what great fruit), Titus (Napa Valley), Magistrate (Dry Creek Valley) and Dutcher Crossing (Dry Creek). I guess you’d have to say that, in terms of the sheer volume of top producers, Dry Creek Valley is producing the best Zinfandels in California.
I like Zinfandel, I respect its long history in California, I bear no ill feelings toward it, but I don’t drink a lot of Zin. I can enjoy a good bottle and give it a good score, but Zinfandel is not a wine I’d normally buy for myself. I suppose I have a tendency to think of it as a barbecue wine because even at its best, it’s lusty and briary, in the rustic way of a country wine. Zin can make a good Port-style sweet wine, but if I want Port, I’ll buy a nice ruby or LBV from Portugal.
Zinfandel goes up and comes down in popular esteem. Even when I arrived on the scene, it had that roller-coaster reputation: in one day, out the next. It didn’t help that it was made in so many different ways: red, white, rosé, carbonically macerated Zin that tasted like Beaujolais, sweet, dry, high alcohol, moderate alcohol, raisiny or not, even (OMG) sparkling. I think Zinfandel will always remain something of a niche wine, but that houses known for it (Seghesio, Ravenswood) will enjoy steady demand. Finally, it makes me very happy that all that Central Valley Zin is finding its way into people’s bellies at a fair price. The wine industry is a pyramid, its broad base consisting of millions of consumers who need sound, everyday wine, and that’s exactly what Central Valley Zinfandel gives them.
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.
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.