Zinfandel is America's wine. Although American wine drinkers often pass up Zin in favor of higher profile reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the future is looking very good for Zinfandel.
Increase interest in Zinfandel is due in large part to the tireless work and promotion of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP), one of the more active wine promotion organizations in California. ZAP advocates for American Zinfandel from California because the vast majority of Zinfandel producers in the United States are from the Golden State.
In the early 1970s, when I first learned a few things about California wine, Zinfandel caught my attention, mainly for its bright berry flavors, but also the history behind the grape's uncertain journey to California. When I went to Bordeaux for the first time as a wine writer, it was California Zinfandel that went with me, not Cabernet Sauvignon.
("We understand they are doing something with grapes in California." While preparing for the trip, I was given some advice from a seasoned wine traveler. "Make sure that you do three things before you leave: make an appointment, be punctual, bring a gift. Of the six to eight letters I sent, I ended up with four firm appointments. In those
days, I had to make my appointments by mail, as email was not yet
Then, what to bring as a gift for my hosts? Something that said
California wine would be the appropriate choice. A bottle of Zinfandel
was just the thing.
I showed up on time to my first visit, at a famous chateau that will remain
unnamed, in jacket and tie (it was, after all, the
early 1970s) with a bottle of Zinfandel in hand. After exchanging the
usual greeting pleasantries, I smiled and handed my host the bottle of
Zinfandel. He glanced at the bottle and then holding it by the top of the bottle, as
though it were a dead rat, he swiveled a half turn depositing the
well-traveled bottle of Zinfandel on a small entry table.
turning back to me, with the smallest of smiles, he said: "Ah, we
understand they are doing something with grapes in California." And
with that, my first visit to Bordeaux began.)
A Long Complicated History
Things have changed a great deal in Bordeaux since my first visit, partly because of the increased interest in wine that started in America in the 1970s, but also due to the vast number of wine articles and books that have been written about Bordeaux and indeed all wine. Part of that are the books about Zinfandel and how it was brought to California. What follows then is a brief summary of that journey.
The route taken by Zinfandel from Europe to the United States was not direct and, in fact, included a few blind alleys. For years, it was believed that the Hungarian count, Agoston Harazthy, considered to be the "Father of California Viticulture," brought Zinfandel with him from his home country. A more recent examination of the records showed that Zinfandel likely was brought from Austria by a Long Island nurseryman.
In the move west, many grape vines including Zinfandel, were carried by settlers hoping to strike it rich in California's gold country. After the Gold Rush of 1849 played out, many of the unsuccessful miners turned to agriculture, using plant material from eastern nurseries, including Zinfandel. In time, Zinfandel became part of field blends that included red grapes like Carignane (Carignan in France) and Alicante Bouschet.
Zinfandel, along with other red grapes like Merlot and Pinot Noir, is one of the vine species, Vitis vinifera. However, there is an important distinction that kept Zinfandel from full membership: Zinfandel has no French connection. This meant that in the late 19th century, French grape scientists omitted Zinfandel from their studies. Ampelography is the science of vine and grape identification and description. An ampelographer is otherwise known as a grape scientist.
Jump forward to the 1990s when the use of DNA showed conclusively that Zinfandel was the same as the variety Primitivo, grown in the southern Italy province of Puglia. Before the DNA findings, the feds tried to stop the import of an Italian wine labeled as Zinfandel, maintaining that it was, in fact, Primitivo. Today, you'll find both California Zinfandel and Primitivo, often from the same winery, on store shelves.
Today, the major California regions for Zinfandel include: Dry Creek Valley, Lodi, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Sierra Foothills.
Here are more things you should know about Zinfandel:
* Zinfandel is primarily a red wine, although there are pink and "white" versions.
* Red Zinfandel is made mainly in two styles: a fruity, jammy style and one that is more like Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes referred to as the Bordeaux style.
* In terms of planted acreage in California, Zinfandel (44,000 acres) lags behind Cabernet Sauvignon (90,000 acres).
* By its very nature, Zinfandel is higher in alcohol than other red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Although some Zins manage to stay under 15%, many are as high as 16%.
* Besides its popularity in California, limited plantings can also be found in Western Australia, South Africa and the southern France region of Languedoc.
* According to the recent Full Glass Research study, there are 1,750 red Zinfandels on the market, 460 are vineyard-designated and 274 are labeled old vine.
* Sales of Zinfandel over $20 are up, while top names like Turley, Ridge, Shelton and Biale are in the $35 to $60 price range.
The Old Vine Factor
The use of old vine grapes concentrates the fruit component in the wine, bringing out many of the grape's essential flavors, including raspberry and blackberry, spice, mocha and any component derived from oak aging in either American or French oak barrels. Traditionally, Zinfandel was aged in American oak, but ultimately French oak prevailed, adding a measure of sweet spice.
So, what does the "old vine" designation mean on a red wine? Legally, not much.The feds have declined to define the term, leaving it to the wine industry. Generally, old vine is any vine that is more than 50 years old and produces less than 3 tons per acre, but in practice, the age of the vine could be 25 to over 100 years. In a recent ZAP survey of member wineries, it was revealed that 60% of purchased Zinfandel grapes came from old vine vineyards.
These are my notes on seven California Zinfandels that I tasted recently:
Artezin 2017 Mendocino County Old Vine Zinfandel, 14.8% alc., $18.
Winemaker Randle Johnson added 15% Petite Sirah, giving the wine a
red-purple hue. The fruit is bright with spice and raspberry and cocoa notes,
supported by smooth tannins. A good value.
Pedroncelli 2017 Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone Zinfandel, 15% alc., $19. A bigger Zin than the Artezin, it has a deep red-purple color, oak and berry nose, complex spice, cedar, mocha and toasted oak flavors. Originally planted in 1904 and replanted in the 1980s. Blended with 19% Petite Sirah. A good value.
Rodney Strong Vineyards 2016 Northern Sonoma Old Vines Zinfandel, 15% alc., $25. Medium-deep ruby-red nose with a sweet spicy French oak nose, bright, ripe berry flavors, soft tannins, good acidity and length. Blended with 2% Syrah.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2016 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel, 14.5% alc., $38. Deep ruby color, low intensity spice and vanilla scents, rich berry flavors, smooth good oak integration, medium length with lots of ripe berry fruit. Made from 95-year-old vines, this Zin was aged in French, American and Hungarian oaks and blended with 19% Petite Sirah and 3% Carignane.
Rombauer Vineyards 2017 El Dorado Twin Rivers Vineyard Zinfandel, 15.9% alc., $42.
Deep purple-red color, pepper and vanilla and raspberry aromas, ripe berry flavors, big tannins, some heat, dense finish. Blended with 15% Petite Sirah and aged in French and American oaks.
Quivira Vineyards 2017 Dry Creek Valley Black Boar Zinfandel, 14.9% alc., $50.Bright red-purple color, attractive berry and spice with oak back notes, smooth ripe berry flavors, firm tannins, finishes with rich texture and fruit. Blended with 21% Petite Sirah and aged in French and American oak.
First Grade (Robert Biale Vineyards) Napa Valley Zinfandel, 14.8% alc., $100. Biale has a solid reputation as a Zin man among his many admirers. This wine shows his style with a bright red-purple color, slightly closed French oak spice and lush berry, smooth balanced, it finishes with plenty of Zin fruit. An unusual blend of Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Early Burgundy, aged in French oak Burgundy barrels.
Summary: These seven Zins represent a range of the styles and prices available in today's Zinfandel market. Of note is the contrast between the Artezin and Pedroncelli, aged in different oaks but basically the same price, and how these two wines compared in quality and price against the three higher priced wines. I am impressed with how the quality of Zinfandel has improved, but surprised at the rising prices. Today, the average price of red Zinfandel is about $25, with a handful priced at $100.
Next Blog: Sherry for the Holidays
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| Old Vine Zinfandel |
The first edition of "Gerald D Boyd On Wine" (posted July 12, 2019), was about the "Pleasures of Beaujolais." There was only a passing mention in that blog of the unique style of Nouveau Beaujolais.
So come with me now as we venture from the Beaujolais vineyards in east central France to the wine bars and dining rooms where the new wine of Beaujolais is enjoyed this month, and while it lasts, well into the new year.
The adventure begins on the third Thursday of November, the official release date of the 2019 Nouveau Beaujolais, a fete that is met every year in France and around the world with a mix of joy and derision. In the 1970s and early 1980s, shippers competed with races to Paris to see who would be first to place their Beaujolais Nouveau in the bistros and restaurants.
By 1985, the craze had spread to the rest of the world, which meant that the release date of the new wine had to be backed up a few days so the wine would reach foreign markets on the "official" Thursday. The catch was, though, that local distributors had to agree to keep the wine under lock until 12:01 am local time on the third Thursday.
Understanding the Nouveau Style
The stage is set then for nouveau's big day. To
understand and fully appreciate the nouveau variation of Beaujolais, it
helps to first know a few things about Beaujolais itself. Beaujolais the
region is separated from the Burgundy by the Maconnais and the Cote Chalonnaise and lies just north of the Rhone Valley. Beaujolais rouge is made as Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and the ten cru Beaujolais.
The nearness of the Beaujolais region to Burgundy allows Beaujolais wines to
legally be called either Beaujolais or Burgundy, although it's doubtful whether few proud
Beaujolais vintners would opt for the latter appellation.
Nouveau (new) Beaujolais is the best known in a select group of wines that the French call vin de primeur, or young wine; in all, there are 19 wines in the primeur group. Made from Gamay noir a-jus-blanc, (simply known as Gamay), Nouveau Beaujolais is a deeply tinted grapy wine, with soft tannins, lots of strawberry-like fruit and moderate alcohol. Nouveau is a pleasant gulpable wine that won't age, so drink it now.
A technique known as carbonic maceration is the key to Beaujolais Nouveau. The carbonic maceration process involves placing whole clusters of grapes in a fermenter, as carefully as possible, to avoid breaking the grape skins. Carbon dioxide is then added, thus creating an anaerobic atmosphere, causing the juice inside each grape to ferment without the benefit of yeast. During the process, grape sugars and harsh malic acid are lowered, while alcohol strength and glycerol are increased, all within each mini grape fermenter.
The practice of loading a tank with whole clusters means that 100 percent carbonic maceration is impossible. Dumping the clusters into the tank will break some of the grape skins, then as the mass piles up, the weight of the clusters cause the skins of those grapes on the bottom layers to burst allowing the juice to begin fermenting the normal way. The question is whether to sacrifice some of the juice to make nouveau wine?
Only the upper layer of grapes undergo 100 percent carbonic maceration, while the lower layers mostly ferment naturally. Thus, carbonic maceration is more semi-carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is not used with white grapes because it produces off flavors.
Other regions in France use carbonic maceration with Gamay and other red varieties like Grenache. In Italy, nouveau wines are called vino novello, and in Spain, it's vino joven.
The main export market for Beaujolais Nouveau (40%) is Japan, followed by the United States.
Select Beaujolais Nouveau producers include Georges Duboeuf, Domaine Rochette and Mommessin. (Check this)
In the 1990s. when Beaujolais Nouveau was all the rage in the United States, a handful of California wineries, like Sebastiani, cashed-in on the craze, but it only lasted a few years. The idea was to make a "new" wine in the style of Beaujolais Nouveau, using Gamay and other varieties. Today, a small number of West Coast wineries are making what they call "Nouveau-style" wines, meaning any red wine, including Cabernet Sauvignon, that is released soon after harvest.
(His socks were white when he left California. Years ago while living in Colorado, I was writing about wine for the "Rocky Mountain News," a newspaper that unfortunately no longer exists. Don Sebastiani, then head of Sebastiani Vineyards, was in town to show Sebastiani Nouveau, a fruity California alternative to French nouveau.
Don checked into Denver's famous Brown Palace Hotel, then prepared for a tasting that evening. After welcoming the crowd, Don explained what his family's nouveau was all about, then pausing, he stepped to the edge of the riser and pulled up both of his pant legs to reveal a pair of purple-stained white socks.
|Gamay noir a-jus-blanc |
As Don told the smiling crowd, before boarding the plane in San Francisco, he discovered there were a few more bottles of wine then would fit into his checked baggage. So now, feeling a bit harried, he quickly stuffed them into his carry-on. Then, as he entered the Brown, Don tripped, dropping his bag on the marble floor. And to add to his embarassment, he discovered that one of the bottles had broken in his bag, soaking the socks and other items.
Still holding up his pant legs, Don looked out at the audience and noticed that many of the people were stifling laughter, so he dropped his pant legs, gave a good-humored shrug, then invited everyone to sample Sebastiani Nouveau.)
Nouveau and Thanksgiving
Marketing Beaujolais Nouveau in the United States usually means pairing the wine with the traditional Thanksgiving meal. For years, a range of red wines, as well as Chardonnay and dry Riesling, were suggested as a good matches with turkey and the side dishes that graced the Thanksgiving table. Problem is that no matter how good the intention, few of the wines, except maybe some Pinot Noir, worked.
Across America there are many variations and interpretations of what makes up a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Start with different wines that marry with white and dark turkey meat. Then there are the sides: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or candied yams, stuffing
(dressing?) with poultry seasoning, and what do you do with cranberry
sauce, whole or jellied? Well, you get the point.
So, if you happen to be in a Paris bistro on November 21, or around a Thanksgiving table somewhere in America, make at least one of the wine choices Beaujolais Nouveau.
Next Blog: A Zin Primer
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NOTE: For some reason, Blogger.com did not send the Nov 6 blog, "New World Sauvignon Blanc" to all subscribers. If you are one of those folks, here is the blog. If not, please disregard.
For years, the wine community has been preoccupied with Chardonnay, almost to the point that little was written about any other white wine, including Sauvignon Blanc. A report that I read not long ago talked about market performance of Chardonnay and a little about Riesling, but never mentioned Sauvignon Blanc. So I thought "Gerald D Boyd On Wine" would alter that algorithm with a two-part series.
the first part of "Sauvignon Styles," posted October 27, we examined Old World sauvignon,
mainly in the French style of Bordeaux blanc and the twin Loire
sauvignons, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume.
This second part takes a closer look at the phenomenon of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and how it
changed the wine drinking public's perception of what Sauvignon Blanc
should smell and taste like. And, we'll review California Sauvignon
Blanc and the smaller but noteworthy sauvignons from Washington
A lot has been written and discussed about Sauvignon Blanc, but the most unexpected thing about the grape is that it is a
parent, along with Cabernet Franc, of Cabernet Sauvignon. Good old DNA
profiling brought that fact home to wine drinkers in 1997. So maybe
"unexpected" is pushing it a little, since it has been 22 years
since the announcement.
There is a saying among growers that bears repeating: "The quality of any wine begins in the vineyard." Sauvignon Blanc grows best when planted in light soils. If vine production is not closely controlled, the wine will have a certain aggressive herbaceous aroma and flavor that some have described as "cat pee," or to put it in the more charming French idiom, pipi du chat.
Over the years, the treatment of Sauvignon Blanc in the winery has changed. Although traditional fermentation methods in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels are still favored by many winemakers, the more modern approach involves a range of techniques, including the use of cement eggs and even a retro move to bring back lined concrete tanks.
New World Sauvignon Blanc
Just what is the New Zealand (or New World) style? The French model was known for a minerality with a citrus back note and occasionally a touch of oak. The terroir in New Zealand's Marlborough region redefined that, with a striking green fruit (read gooseberry) aroma, tropical notes, brisk acidity and no oak.
(American wine drinkers introduction to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. At the third biannual in 1993, Seattle hosted the World Vinifera Conference, an ambitious program designed to examine and celebrate one specific variety. Sauvignon Blanc was the focus in '93, covering the variety from the vineyard to the winery to the marketplace. At the time little was known in this country about the wines of Marlborough, a scenic region spread across the top of New Zealand's south island.
Things moved along in the usual sequence with panels and speakers on growing Sauvignon Blanc, making Sauvignon Blanc and enjoying Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay had sent a quiet spokesman named Kevin Judd who, as it turns out, knew as much about photography as he did about making wine in New Zealand.
Judd was on a panel with winemakers from other regions and in his quiet laid back manner, he let the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc speak for itself. And it was an eye-opener. Few of the attendees had tasted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc before. That first sniff of the wine revealed a pungent aroma of tropical passion fruit and lime juice that nearly jumped out of the glass.
The green fruit descriptor soon became associated with gooseberry, a small sour berry used in making preserves and pies, known more east of the Mississippi than elsewhere in the United States. Curiously, I asked a few winemakers about gooseberry on a later trip to New Zealand and was told that Kiwis do not use that descriptor with Sauvignon Blanc and they thought the term came from an English wine writer.)
Select Producers. It wasn't long before a rush of other New Zealand wineries flooded the U.S. market with Sauvignon Blanc, most notably Kim Crawford, but also Villa Maria, Greywacke, Craggy Range, Astrolabe and Dog Point, to name just a few. The word spread, folks discovered Kiwi "sauvy," and it soon become their go-to white wine.
California Sauvignon Blanc
Meanwhile, the California approach to making Sauvignon Blanc was two prong: those labeled Sauvignon Blanc were oak free, while those labeled Fume Blanc might have been aged in oak barrels. In time the distinctions became blurred so that the consumer had no idea which was which.
In the early 1960s, Robert Mondavi and his younger brother Peter disagreed about the future of the family-owned Charles Krug Winery. Robert left in 1966 and opened the Robert Mondavi Winery. Although the move was successful, Mondavi was not happy with slow sales of his Sauvignon Blanc, so in one of the best examples of creative marketing in California wine, he changed the name of the wine to Fume Blanc, a variation on the French Pouilly-Fume.
Mondavi also added oak aging and finished the wine in a dark green bottle, both moves that bore no relationship to the Loire wine called Pouilly-Fume. The "new" reconfigured sauvignon was a resounding success.
Later, however, those California winemakers who had been making varietal Sauvignon
Blanc began to notice the market moving in the direction of New Zealand.
Today, many California Sauvignon Blancs, while not as aggressive as
some Kiwi sauvignons, have shifted toward a clean, fresh varietal with
subtle passion fruit and citrus notes.
Sauvignon Blanc soon began to mount a challenge to the dominance of Chardonnay in California. Noteworthy sauvignons, mostly tank fermented but some with oak, entered the market from Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley and Livermore Valley. Select California Sauvignon Blanc Producers: Honig, Quivira, Dry Creek Vineyard, Kunde, Kenwood, Joel Gott, Peter Michael, Ferrari-Carno and Matanzas Creek.
The eastern Columbia Valley in Washington state is known mainly for red wines, although Chardonnay and Riesling also have a history there. On the other hand, Sauvignon Blanc represents more limited plantings, with vineyards in a broad area from Yakima to Benton City, the Horse Heaven Hills and an area between Othello and the Tri-Cities.
Washington Sauvignon Blanc is straightforward varietal, mainly tank fermented, although some wineries employ the use of barrel fermentation and cement eggs. Sensory characteristics include citrus, dried herbs and zesty acidity.
Select Washington Sauvignon Blanc Producers: Barnard Griffin, DeLille, Sightglass Cellars, Woodward Canyon, JM Cellars.
is no denying that Sauvignon Blanc is a popular wine. But the question
often asked is if Sauvignon Blanc is a great wine? For as long as I can remember, there has been a disagreement about the "best" white wine grape: Chardonnay or Riesling. Attributes can be stacked up under each variety, but the fact remains that no single grape can make the claim to be the best.
So where does that leave Sauvignon Blanc? Does it share status with the other two and is Sauvignon Blanc a great wine? Those who say no claim that
what's keeping Sauvignon Blanc from greatness is that after one glass,
the in-your-face aromatics and flavors begin to wear on you. This is
especially true, the critics hold, for New World sauvignons made in the New Zealand
style. The ultimate judge, of course, is you the consumer.
Next Blog: Nouveau Beaujolais & Carbonic Maceration
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|Seattle and Mt. Rainer|