Norton Safeweb

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The King of Sonoma County

First, a confession, I love Zinfandel. I mean I REALLY love Zinfandel. If I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one kind of wine it would be Zinfandel. This, of course, means I'd have to be stranded with a lot of pasta and pizza delivery service ....

Zinfandel IS the king of Sonoma County. OK, there's more Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grown, but Sonoma is about the Zinfandel grape. Even more exacting the Dry Creek Valley appellation is all about Zinfandel. DCV is Zinfandel Central -- and Zinfandel heaven.

In the 19th century the first Italian immigrants thought Dry Creek Valley looked like Tuscany so they settled in and planted things like Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Carignane.

Dry Creek Valley

Where Zinfandel Came From

Zinfandel is called California's grape. That's because there wasn't anything like it in the Old World and, I guess, it was a sort of immaculate conception grape vine-wise. Once UC Davis did DNA testing they found it was the same as a rare Croatian grape then they found it linked to Italian Primitivo as was long suspected. Current thinking is it's not exactly Primitivo, but maybe a distant clone.

None of that really matters for consumers. What's important is understanding the different styles.

Century old head-pruned Zinfandel near Lodi, CA

One bit of confusion is with a lot of people thinking White Zin is Zinfandel. White Zinfandel is made from Zin grapes, but that's all it has in common with real (red) Zin.

You'll never go thirsty in Dry Creek Valley!
Where Zinfandel is Grown

It seems that amongst wine varietals Zinfandel is the most tied to where it's grown. That is, it takes on very unique qualities based on the growing region.

The main American Viticultural Areas in California for Zin are:

Amador County (and Shenandoah Valley within Amador)
Napa County (Howell Mountain is the best known sub-appellation)
Paso Robles
Sonoma County You'll find it almost anywhere except the cooler growing regions like the Sonoma Coast and Carneros appellations. The best known areas are Dry Creek, Russian River and Sonoma Valleys plus Rockpile and Alexander Valley.

Styles of Zinfandel

There are three main styles to break Zinfandel into though all wines won't fit neatly into one of these.

Old, traditional style - This is the somewhat dry, structured style that requires some aging to fully enjoy. Some wineries that fall into this category are Dry Creek Vineyards, Pedroncelli, Ridge/Lytton Springs, and Storybook Mountain.

Lighter, softer, kind of a Claret style - These are fruity and easy drinking and make good choices for a wine to pick off a restaurant menu to have with your dinner. Some wineries are Cline, David Coffaro, Nalle, and Rafanelli.

Big, blockbuster, fruit-bombs - In-your-face high alcohol Zinfandel popularized by Helen Turley. Some wineries that make this style are Carol Shelton and Biale besides Turley.
The downside to the popularity of this style is there are a number of high-alcohol Zins that come across as really hot-tasting. To me it's like putting a shot of tequila in a Dr. Pepper.

But is there one style that's best? No, it's a personal choice and there are excellent Zinfandels in all styles.

Another issue with Zinfandel is with some tasting pruney. You don't see as much of this as you used to because of better practices in the vineyards.

Zinfandel is also made into a late-harvest or port-style wine. These are usually very nice dessert wines.

Zinfandel Suggestions

For a "Taste of Sonoma County Zinfandels" here are some ideas of fairly easy to find wines you might want to try. These cover all styles. This isn't meant to be a complete list. So besides the wines I've already mentioned here's a few more to look for:

Bella, Deloach, Hartford, Preston, Rosenblum, Ridge, Seghesio, Stryker, Trentadue, and Wilson.

One warning: If you do try a few of these you will become hooked on Zinfandel and you will probably never be the same. Expect your snooty French wine fans to shun you. ;)

Food Pairings
Mmm, the perfect food match
What kinds of food are best matched with Zinfandel? It depends on the style of Zin, but generally any red-sauced pasta dish, anything a bit spicy, ribs, and most beef dishes.
Under the "anything a bit spicy" area I'd include things like rigatoni with sausage, chili, grilled meat with a tomato-based BBQ sauce (including chicken and pork), burgers, and pizza. In other words, pretty much everything I eat!