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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What is Old Vine Zinfandel?

Sonoma County is famous for old vine Zinfandel. Amador County, in the Sierra Foothills, is also well-known for old vine Zin. What makes it "old vine," what makes it special, and why does it usually cost more?

  Origins of Old Vine Zinfandel

Zinfandel came to California in the last half of the 19th century. Amazingly, many vineyards dating back to that time still exist. The oldest producing documented vineyard is the Grandpere (grandfather) Vineyard in Amador County dating from 1869.

  Growing Zinfandel

Old vines in Sonoma Valley
Old vineyards weren't trellised, but head pruned instead, meaning they were essentially grown as small round bushes. Zinfandel has a habit of ripening unevenly so on one vine you'll have green, under ripe grapes along with shriveled up, overripe, raisiny grapes. Under ripe can taste herbaceous and acidic; overripe tastes sweet and pruney. Neither trait is good in large quantities. Head pruning leads to more uneven ripening than with trellised grapevines (one of the reasons for trellising is to promote even ripening).

Modern trellised vines
As grapevines get older, generally past 30 years, the production starts to fall off naturally. By the time they get to what is considered "old vines" you have less tonnage of grapes per acre than with a younger vineyard. This can be down to about 1-1/2 tons per acre, with a younger vineyard about five tons. Less yield means higher prices.  Lower yields also mean more concentrated fruit flavors--this is what lovers of old vine Zins are looking for.

  Old Vine Zinfandel

There is no legal definition for "old vine." Most will say it should mean at least 50 years old, but with old vine Zin usually commanding a higher price you can probably find some 25 year old Zinfandel labeled as old vine. Hint: If an old vine Zin on a store shelf is selling for ten bucks assume it isn't from old vines. You may also see "ancient vines" on a label. I guess this means extra old or maybe just extra expensive. Some will say ancient means 75 or 90 years old, but again, there's no legal definition for these terms.

Note that the term "reserve" on a wine label has no legal definition either.

Most old vine Zinfandels come from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, from Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, and from Lodi in the Central Valley.

Dry Creek Valley -- Zinfandel Central!
Old vineyards are usually a mix of vines--in age and in grape varieties.  Over time some vines become diseased and are replanted. Many old vineyards were field blended as it was common to inter-plant Zinfandel along with grapes like Petite Sirah, Aliconte Bouschet, and Carignane. Sometimes the grower may know what else is in the vineyard and approximate percentages, sometimes not.

So if you're drinking a Zinfandel from 90 year old vineyards that's probably when the vineyard was first planted. A certain percentage has been replanted over time and it may be blended with other grape varieties.

  Zinfandel Styles

Zin comes in two major styles:
  • The traditional, more restrained version is generally lower on fruit flavors, higher in acid and tannin, can be elegant, and has some aging potential. Examples: Kenwood Vineyards, Storybook Mountain Vineyards, and Ridge Vineyards.
  • The style that's become popular in the last 20 years is ripe, bold, big on sweet, soft red fruit flavors, and often higher in alcohol. Examples: Mazzocco Winery and Wilson Winery.
Of course, not everyone is pigeon-holed in one of these two categories as many try for somewhere in between.

  Why Zinfandel is Special -- and old vine Zin is Even More Special

Zinfandel is a fantastic wine. It's incredibly versatile because the different styles can be used for differing occasions. Zin is great with many foods--my favorites being Italian (or anything that's tomato-based), grilled meats from chicken with a spicy BBQ sauce to burgers to sausages. Many Zins are great just by themselves without a food accompaniment.
Kick-ass Zinfandel

Old vine Zinfandels add their own excitement. The wines should be rich, dark, concentrated, and full of berry flavors. Sometimes jammy and spicy are characteristics of an old vine Zin. Sometimes pruney is too--something I don't care for in wine. That's a trick in growing and making Zinfandel--getting lots of nice bright fruit flavors without going over-the-top into pruney. The first time you have a really well-made old vine Zinfandel the experience will be memorable.

You don't see old vine Chardonnay or old vine Cabernet around (at least I never have). As I said earlier, the production of vines falls off after about 30 years and the economics aren't there to keep producing wine from older vines. Old vine Zinfandel is the exception because of the demand for what older vines brings to Zin. There's the marketing aspect too, as "old vine Zinfandel" sells for more just as "reserve Cabernet" does.

  Choosing a Zinfandel

When shopping for a Zinfandel there are many good growing regions in California besides the previously mentioned Dry Creek Valley, Amador County and Lodi. Also, look for Alexander, Russian River, Sonoma, and Napa Valleys, plus Rockpile and Paso Robles. Also, when I shop I look at the alcohol level listed on the label figuring over 15% means fruit bomb, 14-14.5% means more restrained (this isn't guaranteed, but it's another data point in making a selection). However, most old vine Zin will be in the 15%-plus range.