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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Dumbing Down of Zinfandel

 History of Zin in Sonoma
19th century Italian immigrants are credited with bringing Zinfandel to Sonoma County.  They field blended and made it in the style from back home as a wine to go with their Italian meals.    (Field blended means there are other varieties planted with the Zinfandel and it's picked and fermented all together).
With the Mondavi- and Napa-led wine boom starting in the 1970s Chardonnay and Cabernet were king.  Zin fell so far out of favor people started looking for something to do with the grapes besides make jug wine.   White Zinfandel was "invented" and it saved a lot of old Zinfandel vineyards from being uprooted for more Cabernet.

This wine may have saved
many Zinfandel vineyards
Image from
 More Recently
Zinfandel made a comeback of sorts in the 90s then really started to flourish in the last decade with the full-throttle and full-bodied wines.  Mostly by "flourish" I mean prices of this new style jumped as Zinfandel went from a medium-weight, spicy, spaghetti red to the lush, full-bodied fruit-bomb so prevalent now.

Why aren't most of today's Zinfandels still "spaghetti wine?"   The spiciness and the acid backbone are gone from these high-alcohol wines and they just don't stand up to these foods.
Zinfandel has moved away from a complex, brambly, peppery, wine made for tomato-based food and other spicy meals to one of simplistic red fruit flavors.
Much of today's Zin can be described as "bright red fruit followed by some heat."   Think Dr. Pepper with a shot of vodka. 

 Sonoma County Harvest Fair
At last year's local harvest fair wine tasting I went through a lot of Zinfandels to see what I could find out about the current state of this grape. 
I found big fruit is still king, but the alcohols have been toned down (in the processing of the wine).  I also found the majority of these wines to pretty much taste the same and I got bored with them quickly.  Ho hum, another mouthful of red fruit.

It's good to have style choices in a wine variety.  Sometimes I think winemakers are damned if you do and damned if you don't.  If everyone makes a wine the same people complain that's it's boring.  If a wine is made in different styles people complain that they don't know what they're buying.   Think about looking at American Gewurztraminer and Riesling on a store shelf--is it dry or sweet?  Who knows.

 Old Style
Here are some Sonoma folks who still make Zinfandel the way God intended:
Dry Creek, Kenwood (Jack London Vyds), Nalle, Pedroncelli, Preston, Rafanelli, Ridge/Lytton Springs, and Unti.  
And one from Napa:  Storybook Mtn.
These are all food wines.  The Lytton Springs and Kenwood Zins usually need some time to age before they peak.  In fact, some of the best aged wines I've ever had were Zinfandel from these two producers.

 New Style
These are very much fruit-forward and will sometimes show some heat from alcohol in the finish, but these are some of the best of this style:
Armida, Hartford Court, Rosenblum, and Wilson
I picked these because of the past couple years I have bought Zin from all of these folks.

 Dumbing Down
I wonder how many people new to Zinfandel believe finding a black pepper taste to their wine is a flaw?
Great wines are about structure, finesse and complexity.  Too many Zinfandels have none of these making them boring wines.

This post is a follow-up to a previous one about high alcohol California wines.