Three Faces of Zinfandel

Zinfandel grows all over California where it adapts to all kinds of weather conditions, soil types and cultivation practices. There are regional differences, of course, and some parts of the state are more closely identified with good zinfandel than others.

Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is zinfandel heaven for a lot of wine lovers. Others are convinced Lodi or Napa or maybe even the Sierra Foothills are the motherlode of this uniquely American wine.

The grape’s history can be traced back to Europe, but it is only in America that zin has emerged as an important standalone varietal

Taste the Difference

I lined up three bottles of zinfandel, one each from Sonoma, Napa and Lodi, for a blind tasting. The great thing about all three wines I tried was the price. I saw them on sale at Lucky’s for $9.98, that’s about 25% off the suggested retail price for one of the wines and 40% off the other two!

Each wine comes from “old vine” sources of fruit. In this case “old vine” means vineyards that range in age from 50 to more than 100 years old. Regional differences were apparent in each sip, as detailed below.

Zinfandel No. 1

This wine revealed the least perfume, and the deepst color (dark purple), of all the wines. It’s bashful nose of dark cherries developed after a few minutes in the glass. This wine came up a bit short on approach with noticeable tannins.  When I added dab of sharp cheddar cheese and a hunk of sourdough baguette, the wine came alive in my mouth.

This was the 2007 Sonoma County bottling ($16) from Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma. It’s 76 percent zin with equal portions of petite sirah, carignane and “assorted” black grapes in the blend.

Zinfandel No. 2

On initial approach, there was a strong, sweet blueberry nose. The color rivaled the purple darkness of No. 1. The blueberries followed through in the taste, but the finish landed a bit roughly and abruptly in the mouth. I got a bit more pleasure out of the next sip when I took a bite of tonight’s dinner — grilled lamb kebabs and zucchini over rice. A bit of hot sauce pushed the combination of the wine and lamb up a notch in taste.

This was the 2008 Napa Valley from Ravenswood. The blend is 75 percent zin and 25 percent petite sirah. Retail price is $16.

Zinfandel No. 3

A bit less dark than 1 and 2 with some red highlights. Nose of blackberry compote. Mouth-watering and lick-smacking before the first sip. The flavor practically leaped from the glass. To say this wine is fruit forward is an understatement, but there’s enough structure underneath to balance things out. This was the Lodi bottling ($13), also from Ravenswood. It includes 23 percent petite sirah.

Zinfandel No. 4

Out of curiosity, I decided to try my own blend of the three wines, mixing equal parts of each one to produce a hybrid glass that, hopefully, would highlight the top features of each separate wine.

I liked the result, which toned down the fruitiness of No. 3 with the tannins of No. 2 and No. 1 while retaining the blueberry highlights of the nose that I personally enjoy. Given more time, I’d probably fine-tune the blend and experiment with percetages to see the impact on taste.

Thanksgiving Surprise

What wine do you serve with traditional Thanksgiving fare like roast turkey?

My best advice is to drink anything you like — from sparkling wine and chardonnay to middleweight reds like syrah and heavyweight reds like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. There is no one “perfect” choice, but I do have something different to suggest for 2010’s most thankful of holidays.

I recently received a sample bottle of Darcie Kent Vineyard’s 2009 gruner veltliner ($18, 2500 cases) from the Rava Jack vineyard in Monterey County. Gruner veltliner is a white European grape that grows well in cooler climates and it’s especially popular in Austria. Not much gruner is planted in California. I’ve tried a few unimpressive Austrian bottles, and didn’t expect much from the one domestic bottling I’d encountered.

It was terrific. The gruner offered a nice citrus nose and a great touch of lime and light peach fruit in the mouth. This was a refreshing glass of wine that I would be happy to offer on my Thanksgiving table. Right next to the zinfandel.

Operating in the same price range, and always a great deal for zinfandel fans, is the “Vintner’s Cuvee XXXII” from Rosenblum Cellars. The current release ($12) is another winner in a long string of successful bottlings for this zinfandel and Rhone-style specialist. It’s “berry” good with a mix of blackberry, raspberry and cherry flavors. My own blended “hybrid” reminded me of the Rosenblum offering, which is made from vineyard sources all across the state.

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