It was great seeing the return of old members as well as the addition of new members to our restart of the Grape of the Night Group. The goal of this group is to get together once a month and sample many different wines from different regions, countries or wineries in order to develop an appreciation and understanding of how much diversity exists within a given varietal. The motto of the group is to look for the unusual and search out what you don’t know. This is a learning experience for all of us.
I would also like to thank Guy Lelarge ,of Valencia Wine Company (VWC), for graciously hosting our group. Julie was our server during the meeting and in typical VWC fashion we were truly pampered. Julie was always on hand taking care of us as the night went on. It was quite an experience sitting at a table with the ambiance of tasting wines at candle lit tables, a trait that VWC has offered its patrons since they opened. Even Eve Bushman, of Wine Blog 101, joined us for this evening of wine education. Now on to the topic of the Grape of the night which was Zinfandel wines.
Red Zinfandel is an “American Classic” wine. The original origin was believed to be from native Californian grapes. Research and studies have found that the zinfandel grape actually originated in Italy, but is now primarily grown in California. Zinfandel grapes grow best in cool, coastal locations.
The color of a Zinfandel wine is deep red, bordering on black. Characteristic flavor of Zinfandel is a spicy, peppery wine, with a hint of fruity flavor. The flavors of berries or dark cherries are often noted on the palate. Zinfandel wines go great with such foods such as pizza, burgers, etc. It’s also hearty enough to match up with thick red sauces in your favorite pasta.
Serving temperature for a red Zinfandel should be around 65 degrees. It should also be served in a narrow-mouthed glass to get the full effect of the wine. Most people like to drink zinfandels young – within a year or two, but there are also quite a few Zinfandels that age well. There is a big change in Zinfandels when aged as the flavors are far more mellow. It is your choice if you favor the taste of a young Zinfandel over an old one! We had one great example of a Zinfandel with some age that evening, a bottle of 1999 Fess Parker from Santa Ynez. I will talk more about this wine later in the article.
As a note, the red Zinfandel grape is also used to make white Zinfandel wine. The difference is that the skins are removed and not used in making white Zinfandel. It is the skin that provides the deep red color of the red. It is interesting that with the skins removed, a sweet white wine is made but add the skins and you get a robust flavor and color.
Zinfandel grapes are planted in over 10 percent of vineyards in California. DNA fingerprinting of the Zinfandel grape from California shows that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian grape, Crljenak Kastelanski, and also the Primitivo, a variety traditionally grown in the “heel” of Italy, where it was introduced in the 1700s. The grape found its way to the United States in the mid-19th century, and became known by variations of the name “Zinfandel”, a name of uncertain origin.
White Zinfandels out sell red Zinfandels by as much as six times in the United States. Zinfandel grapes have a high sugar content which produces alcohol contents that exceed 15 percent. The taste of the red Zinfandels is influenced by the ripeness of the grapes from which it is made. Red berry fruits like raspberries and dark cherries predominate in cooler areas, whereas blackberries, anise and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas. Wines from extremely hot regions, such as Temecula, tend to display a raisin/prune profile. It is this authors belief that careful scheduling of when to pick Zinfandel grapes must be followed in extremely hot regions. I tasted “Katrina”, a Zinfandel from Briar Rose, recently that had the peppery dark berry flavor profile without the typical raison or prune flavors found in many from this region. I would expect nothing less coming from Briar Rose. For more information on Briar Rose go to Eve’s Wine 101 Blog and search for “Briar Rose”.
Below is an interesting article, by Alan Boehmer, about the very unique history of the Zinfandel grape.
History and background of the Zinfandel grape
by © Alan Boehmer
Perhaps no other wine grape enjoys a history so shrouded in mystery as Zinfandel. Not only do we not know its origin, we don’t even know how it got to California in the first place. What we do know is that it quickly became California’s most widely planted red wine grape and remained so for over a century.
Few single wine grapes have enjoyed the phenomenal success of Zinfandel. There are annual festivals devoted exclusively to it. There is a professional society whose membership includes thousands of consumers and almost every winery in the world that produces Zinfandel wine. Ever hear of a society devoted exclusively to Gewurztraminer? Or a major festival featuring a thousand Pinot Noirs to the exclusion of all other wines? We’ll be reporting on two of these amazing Zinfandel events in our next article: The Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) Annual Zinfandel Festival in San Francisco; and the Annual Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival held each March in Paso Robles.
But first, some background. There has been much discussion over the past decade or so about Zinfandel’s origin. All agree that it descended from a European cultivar in the mid-nineteenth century and was offered by a New York nursery. That may seem odd since the Zinfandel we know today has not been successfully grown in the northeastern U.S. Some very vocal advocates claim Zinfandel is identical to an indigenous Croatian grape. Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich (Grgich Hills Winery) opened a winery devoted to this grape in Croatia. We tasted the Croatian version and his Napa Valley version side-by-side and found striking similarities. More recent DNA studies seem to point to a connection with the Italian Primitivo grape grown in Puglia. But some argue that the Italians got it from California since there is no evidence that it existed in Italy prior to the twentieth century. Others have contended that the Italians may have gotten it from Croatia! We were recently amused to see that an Italian Primitivo producer took Zinfandel cuttings from Ridge Vineyards in the 1990s and is now marketing an Italian Zinfandel in California.
Perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding Zinfandel is that it is so difficult to cultivate successfully outside of California. We’ve tasted examples from South Africa, Oregon, Washington State, and Australia. The Australian example was actually quite good, but didn’t come close to competing with top level California Zinfandels. All others were little more than curiosities.
Since Zinfandel is equally at home in California’s hot interior valleys (Dry Creek), cool coastal regions (Templeton), and high altitude locations (Sierra Foothills), why no great examples from Washington or South America? It’s a mystery.
CHANGING STYLES IN ZINFANDEL
We know of no other varietal that offers the spectrum of styles we see in Zinfandel. A Zinfandel can be white (light pink) or red, dry or sweet, sparkling (carbonic maceration) or still. It can be late harvested for a dessert wine or made into a splendid Port. It even finds its way into sacramental wine thanks largely to its low cost, high alcohol, and mild tannins.
Over the years, we’ve seen remarkable shifts in Zinfandel style. After the bristly, tannic Zinfandels of the 1960s, the varietal all but disappeared from public view. The most widely purchased red wines of the years following carried generic names like Hearty Burgundy and Mountain Red. These generic wines were largely Zinfandel-based, but we were never told. Then came the overwhelming enthusiasm for sweet White Zinfandel that lasted more than a decade. True, red Zinfandel slowly regained its lost ground while many wine lovers were ogling the latest Merlot. We’re happy to report that the best Zinfandels ever made are being crafted now. Some are the products of medium-sized wineries especially devoted to this varietal, such as Ravenswood, Ridge, Seghesio, and Rosenblum. But very small family-operated wineries are offering splendid examples, too. Nadeau Family Vintners and Toucan Winery in California’s Central Coast region come to mind.
Zinfandel is America’s wine. Current styles are big and bold, soft on the tannin, hugely fruity, and increasingly high in alcohol. We’ve seen many Zinfandels intended as table wines reach more than 16% alcohol and one that came in at 17%. Wines with this depth and concentration might best be served in cordial glasses and enjoyed with a bite of dark chocolate. The average high quality dry Zinfandel on today’s market will have an alcohol content of around 14.5%-about a full percentage point above most traditional New World red wines.
Wines of the Evening:
1999 Fess Parker Reserve Zinfandel (Santa Ynez)
Very silky tannins
This wine was very unique. Most of us expect fruits with a spicy/peppery profile from a Zinfandel, but this wine had 10 years age in the bottle and as you can see above the spicy/peppery profile was replaced with cherries. I enjoy old world wines, where you can taste the fruit with smooth subtle earthy flavors in the background. The 1999 Fess Parker Zinfandel was reaching its peak and provided a profile of mild fruits and smooth tannins. The spices and pepper were not dominant as would probably be found in a younger Fess Parker Zinfandel wine. I really want to thank Marianne for bringing a wine that displayed a totally different perspective of a Zinfandel.
2005 Kunde Shaw Vineyards Reserve Century Vines (Sonoma Valley)
Wine Enthusiasts: 92 points
Tasting Note :
“Locked down by hard tannins, this nonetheless is a beautiful Zinfandel, dry and rich in flavor. It bursts with savory wild berry, tobacco, mocha and pepper flavors, and feels elegant and refined. The tannins call for enormously rich beef, pasta, sauces and cheese,” Wine Enthusiast (March 2009)
2006 Midnight Vineyard (Paso Robles)
Tasting Note :
The color is an incredibly dark garnet with violet accents. The nose is explosive with intriguing aromas of stone fruit, strawberry, and cinnamon. The mouthfeel is enormous with a bold array of peaches, dried herbs, minerals, ripe blackberry and leather. The finish lasts forever with well-balanced tannin and acidity.
Vinification Note :
670 cases produced.
pH: 3.38 Titrateable Acidity: 0.725 Alcohol: 15.9% Residual Sugar: 0.3
2005 Englemans Cellar Zinfandel Uber Zin (Fresno)
Tasting Note :
This is the follow up vintage to the 2001 Uber Zinfandel. Big and jammy with some nice oak influences. Uber in German means “above” or “over the top”, this is a perfect description for this big Zinfandel
Vinification Note :
Oak: 30% French, 70% American
Time in Oak: 30 months
2006 Elyse Morisoli Vineyard (Napa)
No pepper or spices detected
Connoisseurs’ Guide: 90 points
Tasting Note :
The Morisoli Zinfandel is true to form, yet another beauty from this distinctive vineyard. The volcanic soil, old vines and field blend produce a wine that is always aromatically teasing and lush but balanced on the palate. Dark ruby colored, it has inviting aromas of mixed berries, cola, baking spices and strawberry preserves. On the palate, deep yet bright flavors of ripe raspberries and blackberries along with sensations of toffee and creme brulee are followed by a round mouthfeel and an elegant, balanced harmonious finish.
2005 JC Cellars Arrowhead Mountain Vineyards
Pepper on the tongue
Robert Parker: 91 points
Tasting Note :
Perhaps the measure of just how good a winemaker Jeff Cohn is, is the strength of his 2005 Zinfandel Arrowhead Mountain. From a very challenging year for Zinfandel, Cohn has turned out one of the vintage’s finest wines. It is deep ruby/purple color is accompanied by loads of briery, peppery, spice fruit, good acidity, medium to full body, and a substantial mouthfeel. Robert Parker
Vinification Note :
Here’s a steep hillside vineyard, with some portions having up to a 60 degree slope. We feel that this vineyard offers one of the most dynamic Zinfandels around. The fruit is sourced from 5 unique sections, each having varying degrees of soil differentiation and sun exposure. Some sections are head-trained, while others are a bi-lateral cordon depending on the steepness of the vineyard slope. Arrowhead Mountain Vineyard is organically farmed by hand with about 9000 vines on 5 acres of land. The clone used is called Cooke since its from the Cooke Vineyard a mile up the road, which was probably originally obtained from Louis Martini’s Monte Rosso Vineyard or the Upper Weiss Vineyard depending on who you talk to. At 400 feet in elevation, the vineyard’s fruit comes off more “old vine” like than the vineyards age would lead you to believe. Even though this vineyard was only planted in 1996, its gives the flavor profile of an “old vines Zinfandel” vineyard. It contains a sweet, concentrated briery fruit component of cherries and raspberries. This is complimented by a spicy, peppery finish. Not a wine I would call varietally correct since in blind tastings it’s commonly mistaken for a Syrah. The volcanic rock soil, Cooke clone, organic farming, and cropping at one ton per acre combine to give this vineyard its “old vine” effect. 431 cases produced
2006 Tobin James Gang Reserve Zinfandel (Paso Robles)
Preserves (lighter than jam)
In conclusion, you can see that there is an almost cult following to the Zinfandel Grape as Alan Boehmer stated in his article. I know personally that a few of my friends are big followers. Mike Perlis, fellow author and Blogger on Eve’s Wine 101, loves Zinfandels and has introduced me to some very unique examples. Regions, temperature, terroir and age provide a very wide profile in tastes and aromas.
Interesting to me is the fact that even though there are many publications on the history and origin of the Zinfandel grape there is not a unanimous agreement. In closing, I would like to leave you with Appellation Americas comical overview of the Zinfandel grape:
Zinfandel…You’re a master of disguise. Who is that masked man known as ZIN? You hide behind a mask of contradictory styles. Are you the soft, sweet hombre oft seen in the Central Valley, disguised in a vibrant pink cape? Or perhaps you are the fire-breathing rogue of the Sierra Foothills, a spicy-natured, tannic beast. How will you appear next?…and where! Always willing to change your facade to suit the environment, your true nature seems to be adaptability, itself. You are a legend in California; friend of the poor pisano, and delight to the pompous patron. Truth is, you’re no robber at all…you give to all!