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Monday, October 6, 2014

The Versatility of Zinfandel

California Zinfandel is an interesting wine. 

Premium Zinfandel is grown in diverse areas like Mendocino County in the North Coast, Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, Lodi in the Central Valley, and Paso Robles on the Central Coast. Several appellations of Sonoma County are known for great Zins, such as Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley, and Rockpile. In nearby Napa County the Howell Mountain area is well known for Zinfandel.

The differing styles and resulting versatility isn't just because of where it's grown, but from how it's made. The range of styles means a range of situations where it can be used as a beverage.

For a long time Zinfandel was used as a blending grape in your basic red jug wine. Later as a varietal it was made in what I'd call a Cabernet-style wine meaning it was restrained, tannic, low alcohol, and ageable. Then along came White Zinfandel turning into a huge success in the market, if not with the critics. To this day there are folks that believe all Zinfandel is pink, not red. About 20 years ago you started seeing softer, fruitier, approachable, and higher alcohol Zins. The fact that this style of Zinfandel was so easy to drink made it a big success. 

Check the alcohol level on this Zinfandel from Rosenblum

So now you find the restrained, 14% plus-or-minus alcohol versions and those fruit bombs hitting 15 to 16%. There is room for both in the market. Some winemakers have taken to making the fruit bombs then removing some of the alcohol to get those soft, fruity flavors without the heat from the high alcohol. 

You can't always predict the style based solely the the alcohol by volume number on the label as wineries are allowed a large range on their finished product. You really have to know the winery, or at least the appellation where it was grown. For instance, if I see Lodi or Paso Robles on a bottle along with a 15.5% number I know what I'm in for (a fruity monster). I also have a pretty good idea what to expect when I see Sonoma Valley and 14% (a bit rustic maybe).

A few successful wineries on each end of the spectrum would be Dry Creek Vyds, Nalle, Ridge/Lytton Springs and Storybook Mountain on the restrained side with Rosenblum, Turley, Wilson and Biale on the other end.  Other reliable producers, all from Sonoma County, are Carol Shelton, Deloach, Kenwood Vyds, Mazzocco, Pedroncelli, Ravenswood, Seghesio, St. Francis, and Trentadue. When I buy I also have reliable regions for Zinfandel: Dry Creek Valley (a well-known Zin growing area) and Rockpile (not so well-known).

With the range of styles comes a range of uses for each. Those fruit bombs are fine in a cocktail setting, as at a wine bar or when having a glass on the patio before dinner. This isn't necessarily the place where you want a lot of tannins and acids, right? However, when it comes to the meal I'll take the restrained style with the acid backbone that stands up to whatever you can throw at it:  Raviolis, grilled sausages, pork ribs, or even a nice grilled ribeye steak. Grilled chicken with a spicy BBQ sauce? Zin. Pizza? Zin. Seafood gumbo? Zin.  

Besides, with Zinfandel you get such great naming opportunities: Sin Zin, Original Zin, The Immortal Zin, Cardinal Zin, and Artezin.

Versatile = Zinfandel.

Two producers of highest-quality, food-friendly Zinfandel