Zinfandel — California’s Wine

Posted by | Posted in Wine Events, Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-29-2011

After having the privilege to attend a dinner last week with Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson at Blue Hill in New York City’s Greenwich Village, I became curious about Zinfandel.

Yes, Zinfandel, the much maligned California grape that is often associated with that gunk called “White” Zinfandel.

Joel founded Ravenswood winery in 1976. And since then, he has been producing well-known, often acclaimed, terroir-driven “Red” Zinfandel. At Blue Hill, we were fortunate to taste through the six single vineyard designated (SVD) Zinfandels that Joel produces. They are really great examples of Zinfandel — fruit driven, bold, rustic food-friendly wines that are made in a serious style. Unlike many of today’s examples of Zin, Ravenswood’s SVDs are not characterized by over-the-top alcohol levels or overripe fruit.

Joel’s interest in wine was spurred by his parent’s experimentation with European wines during his childhood in San Francisco.

Both his parents  were chemists. So like most scientists, they were intellectually curious.  In the early 1950s, upon noticing that the French drank wine with dinner, they purchased a mixed case of French wine to see what the daily habit of the French was all about. That case, purchased for a mere $15.40, included a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem and Château Haut-Brion. In today’s dollars, $15.40 in 1954 translates to about $124. Quite a deal, considering that recent vintages of d’Yquem and Haut-Brion cost upwards of $500 per bottle!

Zinfandel vines came to California with the Gold Rush in the 1850s. While some associate California (and its most famous growing region, Napa) with Cabernet, Peterson feels that Zinfandel is California’s indigenous grape. California is dryer than Bordeaux and Zinfandel is able to tolerate California’s arid climate. Growing the Cabernet varietal really only became feasible with the advent of hydroponic farming techniques. Indeed, most Napa Cabernet vineyards use dry drip irrigation to compensate for the lack of enough natural water.

Zinfandel is also unique in that it typically is not grown with the aid of trellis architecture.

Zinfandel grapes grow in large, tight bunches that are prone to ripening unevenly and becoming diseased. As a result, most vignerons favor a traditional head-trained method — commonly referred to as bush vines — as this method tends to produce fewer clusters of grapes with smaller berry size, thus preventing rot and resulting in more intense sugars, healthier color, and better concentration.

The top makers of Zinfandel tend to use “old vines.” While there’s no formal definition of this phrase — or regulation in using it on a label — old vines are typically more than 20 years old, and some were planted more than 100 years ago.

Notably, “old vine Zinfandel” typically isn’t 100 percent Zin!  Zinfandel vines were historically planted as part of a field blend, interspersed with other grape varietals like Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Carignan, and Grenache. Today, it’s impossible to isolate the Zinfandel from these vineyards.

Besides Ravenswood, other top makers of California Zinfandel include Ridge and Turley. Ridge produced its first Zinfandel in 1964 and it has been made by Paul Draper since 1969; the winery is well known for its Geyersville and Lytton Springs bottlings.

Turley is perhaps the most well known (and arguably controversial) Zinfandel maker. The winery was founded by Larry Turley (brother of famous vintner Helen) in 1993 after Larry sold his interest in the successful Frog’s Leap winery (an operation he co-founded). Turley’s wines put Zin back on the map. He initially sourced grapes from two historic sites in Napa — the Hayne Vineyard, planted in 1903, and the Moore Earthquake Vineyard, planted in 1906. The wines are unequivocally bold; Turley Zinfandel, now made by Ehren Jordan, is often big and fruit forward with alcohol levels to match. Some say it’s over the top, but believers in the wine could aptly be characterized as fanatics.

While the Ravenswood wines certainly are not wimpy, they are not over-the-top, alcohol heavy fruit bombs.

Greg Golec has shared detailed notes on all of the SVDs so I’ll stick to my favorite from my evening at Blue Hill — the 2008 Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel. The Dickerson Vineyard is infected with Leafroll Type 2, a virus-like disease that makes it difficult for the grapes to photosynthesize sunlight well. As such, grapes from Dickerson behave like they are from the cooler-climate Sonoma Coast even though they reside on Zinfandel Lane on the west side of the Napa Valley! The ’08 Dickerson has a relatively low pH and is relatively high in acid. Because of its acidity and the tannins in the wine, it pairs really well with food. To me, it had a red raspberry flavor profile and a cigar box quality that made it delicious.

Tasting through the Ravenswood Zins opened my eyes to the possibilities of well-made Zinfandel. I can’t wait to try more (and hopefully much older) examples of California’s indigenous wine.

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