Monday, November 25, 2019

The Zinfandel Primer

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 available. 

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. 

Then, 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.
                                    Old Vine Zinfandel                                        

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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