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All-American Zinfandel: What A Grill Wants

by Marlene Rossman

I'm an unrepentant lover of big California Cabernet Sauvignon fruit bombs even in summer. But once the weather warms up, I smell the hickory smoke on the grill and salivate over my bottles of luscious Zinfandel, the perfect grape for the barbie. This red varietal produces robust wines with strong black pepper, spice and blackberry flavors that pair beautifully with grilled burgers and chicken.

Hold on! Red?!?!.

Yup. White Zinfandel is blush wine made by extracting the juice from the skins early in the fermentation process. Wine snobs diss and dismiss White Zin, but it's refreshingly zippy on hot days and stares down spicy BBQ or seafood kebabs with fruit salsa. A savvy '70s marketing ploy that dramatically increased American wine consumption, it remains an excellent entry-level wine---but please try its beefier brother.

Thankfully, the real McZin inspires little of that snooty, pontificating, "My Cabernet is older, rarer and more expensive than yours" attitude. Zins are made in so many styles that no absolute standard exists. Depending on the winemaker and the viticultural region's climate and geography, they can be elegant and restrained, or so lusty and rich you could almost drink them with a spoon. Indeed, many producers make port from Zinfandel grapes, especially in Mendocino.

Even modest Zinfandels are relatively potent: Fruity, spicy, slightly sweet, aromatic and tannic. The biggest can duke it out with Cabernets for intensity and flavor. The best beautifully balance opulence, fruit and spice. While the old-fashioned, ultra-ripe, almost port-like style has made a comeback with some aficionados for its sheer power, Zins aren't usually meant for cellaring: They're most drinkable when released or aged for a year or two.

Zinfandel is rarely noted for its claret-like complexity. It's about brawn: Most Zins weigh in at 14% alcohol---minimum. This partly (de)stems from another intriguingly unique factoid. Vineyards of, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, are usually replanted after a few decades because the older the vine, the smaller the yield. But most winemakers believe 50 years is necessary to produce classic Zinfandel: Ridge's legendary Paul Draper likens 35-year old vines to "teething babies." Only a few hundred acres of arthritic century-old vines exist, but their tiny berries concentrate the characteristically jammy, opulent flavors.

Consumers, though, are paying the price of deliberately low yields. Factor in the importance of planting sites (from sub-appellations like Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley and Napa's Howell Mountain to single-vineyard Zins), and this once-humble grape, formerly used to round out California "Burgundy" or "Chianti," now commands prices closer to Merlot.

So grab 'em while they're still a relative bargain! Many newbies become Zin fan(atic)s; there's even a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about (red) Zinfandel. ZAP---Zinfandel Advocates and Producers---holds annual spring swings through major cities and the annual ZAP festival that lures over 10,000 Zinophiles to the San Francisco Bay area (the 13th edition is January 21--24, 2004; www.zinfandel.org). California winemakers universally get juiced about the one varietal intimately associated with America. As Van Williamson, winemaker at Mendocino's Edmeades, enthuses on the winery website: "There's something illicitly sexy about a well-made Zin. Its rap sheet is littered with words like hedonistic, exotic, raw, steamy and seductive."

Doesn't that describe the perfect guest to shake up your backyard barbecue?

Original Zin

by Gerry Stanton

Zinfandel's origins have long been shrouded in mystery. A vine's roots are encoded within its DNA. In Zin's case, that double helix is twisted indeed. Dr. Carole Meredith, professor of enology and viticulture at UC Davis, is arguably the world's preeminent wine sleuth; her team discovered the etymology of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and others. But Zinfandel required forensic expertise à la the CSI franchise. For decades, it was assumed to be America's only indigenous Vitis vinifera (that's the good stuff, like Cab and Chard) grape. By 1995, she'd confirmed that Zinfandel and Primitivo di Manduria, from Puglia (Apulia) in southern Italy, were genetically identical clones of the same varietal (some Italian producers, like the excellent Le Corte Anfora, even label their wine Zinfandel). Yet Zin had appeared in a Flushing, New York nursery in the 1820s, whereas no Apulian Primitivo plantings existed prior to the 1880s. Count Agoston Haraszthy of Austria-Hungary brought Zinfandel to California in the 1850s, but that wouldn't explain the earlier East Coast connection. Was Zinfandel a bastard, an orphan, that Edmeades' Williamson fondly calls "a variety of suspect lineage, raised on the wrong side of the tracks, that has struggled to learn English with no hint of an accent"?

Grgich Hills Winery's Miljenko "Mike" Grgich trumpeted the claims of his native Croatia's Plavac Mali (plah-vahtz mah-lee), grown on the Dalmatian coast. When the political turmoil died down in 1991, Mike returned to his homeland and started a boutique winery, Grgic Vina (you can find its 1997 and 1999 Plavac Mali on the web for $25; they're elegant, complex, bursting with black stone fruit). Two University of Zagreb professors, Drs. Ivan Pejic and Edi Maletic, whose goal is to nurture Croatia's 125+ native varietals, asked Meredith's assistance. After four fruitless years, they finally found their match. Not Plavac Mali, but the tongue-twisting Crljenak Kastelanski (sirl-YEN-ack kastel-AN-ski). No 100% Crljenak wine is even made: Only 20 Crljenak vines have been found! (Plavac, it turns out, is the progeny of Crljenak and another grape, Dobricic.)

Croatia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Viennese imperial gardens contained samples of all vines grown in the realm. Grapes labeled "Zinfinil" likely "immigrated" here from that palace nursery, as might the later Primitivo. And the word's origin? It ain't in Webster. Perhaps it honors 18th century German botanist, Dr. Zinn. Or since many Italians originally cultivated Zin stateside, it's related to zingaro, Italian for gypsy. Which would be fitting indeed.

Winemaker's Notes

We asked David Noyes, Kunde Estate winemaker and winner of numerous industry accolades, to comment on Zinfandel. David's background includes a decade at Ridge Vineyards, where he worked with Zin guru, Paul Draper, and experience at several Bordeaux chäteaux.

I like to think of Zinfandel as an American success story, an immigrant who takes on a new name and creates a new, international identity. My own association with Zinfandel began over 30 years ago when I sampled the 1966 Monte Bello Zinfandel, made by Ridge Vineyards. At 17 I'd tasted nothing like it: I still can recall the intense aromatic berry fruit and the dark, purple color. That particular wine confirmed my appreciation of the power that wine has to impress and to alter one's perception of reality, a mystery to which I have devoted my professional life...

Working at Ridge, I came to appreciate the range of Zinfandel in its expression of regional terroir (that combination of climate, soil, topography, sunlight intensity, everything), especially when grown in ideal conditions. We made wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains, Lodi, Paso Robles, Amador, Napa, Mendocino and of course Sonoma, from Dry Creek, Sonoma Valley and West Sonoma near Occidental.

The grapes' thin skins make them susceptible to sunburn and raisining; tight clusters, which arise from more fertile soils and vigorous vines, often lead to rot. The best Zinfandels come from mature, head-trained vineyards, usually on a slight slope above the fog or with prevailing breezes, that aren't subject to extreme heat. Of course, every region has exceptions; lower-cropped, older vines from less fertile soils generally produce more distinctive wines. These old vineyards express personality and cultural heritage, just as elderly people do, intensifying regional character.

Fascinatingly, Zin lends itself to blending, unlike some other varieties. Many vineyards contain other varietals; our own Century vines block sports a few percent of Alicante Bouschet, along with the odd Petite Sirah, Grenache or Mourvèdre vine. These grapes can deepen the wine's color, expand the range of fruit flavors, enhance complexity and showcase a particular vineyard's individuality.

  • Sonoma Valley: Red fruits--raspberry and/or cranberry, herbal notes reminiscent of anis or fennel with a dusting of cocoa in the ripest fruit. Tannins moderate to high
  • Dry Creek: Red and black fruits, soft acidity and softer tannins than Sonoma Valley, briary to black pepper herbal component.
  • Occidental (West Sonoma): High acid, high color, intense berry flavor, minty herbal component.
  • Mendocino, coastal hilltops: Similar to Occidental, but more acidity and structural austerity; can be remarkably long-lived wines.
  • Lodi: Softer fruit flavors, lower acidity, pleasing alfalfa or aromatic grass herbal components.
  • Santa Cruz Mtns: Resembling Lodi in flavor, with some aromatic grassy elements, but more concentrated, higher acidity, more color, lots of berry fruit.
  • Amador: Black fruit, raspberry or cherry jammy flavors, often austere tannic structure, concentrated, roasted, dried herb.
  • Paso Robles: Strong berry and green herb, high acidity, less tannic, especially from limestone soils west of Route 101.
  • Napa: More tannic, especially from Howell Mountain, herbal flavors tend more towards licorice than fennel.

Contributing Editor Marlene Rossman is wine columnist for Flatiron Magazine and founder of Manhattan Wine Seminars, LLC. Gerry Stanton is WCI's associate editor.

All photos courtesy of the Lodi-Woodbridge Wine Commission unless noted. www.lodiwine.com

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