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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"I don't like Zinfandel"

I hear that occasionally as some people either don't get Zinfandel or have had a bad experience or two.  Zin is a fantastic wine and can go with anything from spaghetti and meatballs to BBQ to slightly spicy foods to just having a glass of it by itself.  Zinfandel is probably California's most versatile wine, but if you believe you don't like it that doesn't matter.

For the less familiar folks real Zinfandel is red, not pink and sweet. Zin can be described as jammy and chewy with raspberries, blackberries, with pepper and other spices. It can also be described as hot--and not in a good way. For some reason many winemakers believe Zinfandel requires at least 15% alcohol to be a wine people want to drink. Besides tasting the heat of the alcohol most of the great characteristics of Zinfandel are lost as you are left with simple, bright red fruit. But there are people that like this style of wine or it wouldn't be selling, right? Unfortunately, they are missing the real reasons Zin is such a great, versatile wine.
Another great, hard to find,
Sonoma County Zin
Image from robertruevineyard.com

The best thing for you to do is to sample a wide variety of Zinfandels and decide on your favorite style. After all I'd hate to see you miss out on California's best wines because of a bad choice or two. These listed below are all from Sonoma County grapes. Other areas in California known for producing Zin are Amador County, Lodi, Napa Valley, and Paso Robles.

Since Zinfandel ranges from fruit-forward, jammy, higher alcohol styles to lean, tannic, ageable styles I'll list some suggestions by three categories. There is, of course, some overlap as it's difficult to pigeon-hole them all, but give a try to at least one from each grouping. Fire up the grill or get some raviolis and enjoy!


Lush, concentrated, fruity

Carol Shelton Karma, $33
Carol names most of her wines by style rather than location.  The current release of this one is from the well-regarded Robert Rue Vyd in the Russian River Valley.

Hartford Court Highwire Russian River Vly, $55
High alcohol, unfiltered, new French oak. Huge wine, huge price.  If you can't find the Highwire look for their Russian River Vly Zin.

Mauritson Rockpile, $35
Mauritson makes several different Rockpile appellation Zins as they are also growers in Rockpile.

Pezzi King Dry Creek Valley, $18
Full-bodied and ripe beefy wine

Seghesio Sonoma County, $24
A bold Zin that's considered the "standard" Zinfandel for Sonoma County.

Wilson Diane's Dry Creek Vly, $60
Wilson has single vineyard Zins running from $35 to $60.  They win lots of awards for these wines.  Diane's is my favorite of the ones I've sampled recently (and the most expensive, go figure).

In betweeners

Nalle Dry Creek, $35
Around 13.5% alcohol--very low for a Zin so this is a great food wine.

Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone, $15
About the best value in Zin you'll find.

Preston Dry Creek, $35
Outstanding balance and fruit.  Bad news: Hard to find outside of the winery.

Quivira Dry Creek, $20
Raspberries and bramble, pepper. Classic Dry Creek.

Trentadue Old Patch Red, $14
A Zinfandel-based blend and a good price.

Leaner, ageable

Dry Creek Vyds Sonoma County Heritage, $19
Another lower alcohol Zin blended with a good bit of Petite Sirah. Needs to age a bit.

Kenwood Jack London, $25
Classic style--cherry, pepper, tannins, rustic, requires ageing.

Ridge/Lytton Springs Geyserville, $35
Ridge has so many great Zins with the East Bench, Geyserville, Lytton Springs, Pagani, and Ponzo being some of them.  Some are leaner and more classic Ridge such as the Geyserville bottling while others are higher alcohol Zins like the East Bench.


Non-Sonoma Zinfandels 

Some Zins from other areas you may want to check out:

Fruit-forward and higher alcohol:
Biale (Napa), Bogle (Clarksburg), Klinker Block (Lodi), Rosenblum (several locations in CA)

Medium-bodied:
Grgich (Napa)

Structured and ageable:
Storybook Mtn (Napa). The best Zins from outside of Sonoma County.


Sonoma Appellations

Dry Creek Valley is Zinfandel-central.  Dry Creek made Zinfandel famous and vice versa.  The other great regions are Rockpile and the warmer regions of the Russian River Valley.   You'll also find some good ones from Sonoma Valley and Alexander Valley.


Old Vines

What is old vine Zinfandel?  Most importantly there is no legal definition for old vines. Some will say the vines have to be at least 40 years old or 50 years, but you can say whatever you want. Generally, it refers to lower production vines with more concentrated fruit (and the resulting higher price).

One of the best vineyards in Sonoma County is Maple Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. Tina's Block in Maple Vyds is over 100 years old. The downside is the wines are generally low production therefore hard to find and expensive.
Image from maplezin.com

Aging Zinfandel

Some I've listed above with notes saying "ageable" -- and there are a lot of conversations around aging Zinfandel. I've found the plush, higher alcohol Zins do not age well (not just Zins, but most high alcohol , non-fortified, wines). These should generally be consumed within less than five years of the vintage date.  As you get towards a leaner, tannic, lower alcohol style you can age these wines--most I would say for five to eight years. As with aging any wine it will change as it ages. One of the best wines I've ever had was a '81 Lytton Springs Reserve Zinfandel at 15 years old, but these are the exceptions, rather than the rule.


Food Pairings

The riper styles of Zin go best with richer foods such as a rich style of tomato sauce or beef, such as ribeye steak, or ribs. The leaner you go in style the more you can go with a classic tomato-based sauce that's more acidic or spicy or a heartier beef dish. I also like Zinfandel with grilling when basting any meat, even chicken or pork, with a slightly spicy BBQ sauce.  And, of course, sausages and pizza are great with Zin. If you're going for a glass of Zinfandel without a meal try one of the "in between" wines listed above.


Once you find the style you like and who produces your favorites you may find that Zinfandel has become one of your favorite wines as it is mine!