Rusty’s Wine 102: Zinfandel

Wine Connoisseurs,

Once again we had a great showing with some fine wines being shared. The wine chosen for the evening was Zinfandel. A couple of people in the group admitted that Zinfandel wines were not their cup of tea. I hope the array that was poured has changed their perspective on a very unique wine.

The Zinfandel Grape is a grape of mystery with regards to its origin. 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. DNA fingerprinting revealed that it is genetically equivalent to the Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski discovered on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and also to the Primitivo variety grown in Italy along the Adriatic coast, in a region called Puglia, where it was introduced in the 1700s. The grape found its way to the United States in the mid-19th century.

The first documented use of the term Primitivo appeared in Italian governmental publications of the 1870s. The name is derived from the terms primativus or primaticcio, which refer to the grape’s tendency to ripen earlier than other varieties. This name’s appearance 40 years after the first documented use of the term Zinfandel was previously thought to suggest that Primitivo was introduced to Italy from across the Atlantic; however, this hypothesis became unlikely since the discovery of the vine’s Croatian origin. This conclusion was supported by studies in 1975 by PHD student Wade Wolf who showed that Zinfandel and Primitivo grapes have identical isozyme fingerprints. Zinfandel grapes have flourished in America.

Evidence shows that Zinfandel vines perform better in California than anywhere else in the world, and that diverse growing conditions in California allow the Zinfandel grape to express itself with a multitude of aromas and flavors.

Seven wine growing regions of California have emerged as exceptional for Zinfandel, each with its own unique set of flavor characteristics.

Amador County– Sierra Foothills of Amador produce Zins that are jammy, with pure fruit aromas of raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and blueberry producing a sweet and seductive wine.

Ridge Vineyards – located in the Santa Cruz mountains, considered one of California’s preeminent Zinfandel producers. Amador producers to watch out for are Montevina (Terra d’Oro), Perry Creek, Renwood, Boeger and Amador Foothill Winery.

Dry Creek Valley – Dry Creek Valley Zins vary from jammy, high-alcohol Zins in the Amador style to more balanced, spicy wines that often benefit from blending with other grapes. This warm region produces the jammy Amador style. Zinfandel vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley are old vines that are not trellised and never grown more than a few feet off the ground. Top Dry Creek Zins to look for include Bella, Fritz, Ridge Lytton Springs, Seghesio and Rancho Zabaco.

Paso Robles– has the heat of Amador coupled with a cooling maritime influence after sunset that preserves the acidity and makes even jammy Paso Zins taste slightly fresher than Amador Zins with the same level of alcohol.

Napa Valley– is the sleeper in the Zinfandel arsenal. Napa Zins, are generally overshadowed by cabernet, merlot and syrah. Zins from Napa tend to be more balanced and made in a “claret” style, like a red Bordeaux. Grgich Hills, Storybook Mountain, Chateau Potelle, Howell Mountain Vineyards, Fife, Niebaum Coppola and Chateau Montelena certainly make remarkable Zins. Biale is highly regarded but the Biale Zins typically have the higher alcohols more closely associated with Dry Creek Valley and the Sierra Foothills.

Russian River Valley-which has a cool climate and would be considered least likely spot to plant Zinfandel vines. Zins from this region are mostly old vine and are bright and spicy with a slightly lower alcohol content that those from other regions. Remember from previous write-ups that warmer climates lead to very ripe grapes at harvest. This provides higher sugar content which leads to more alcohol post fermentation. If a wine producer decides to stop the fermentation process early, the wines will be sweet due to residual sugars in the end product. Good example is French wines (low alcohol based on cool climate) and Australian wines (high alcohol based on a warmer climate). Examples of wineries from this region are Hartford Family, Gary Farrell and Dutton Goldfield Zins.

Mendocino County-The wines of Mendocino aren’t as well known because they aren’t as heavily marketed, but a couple of wineries from this area are Mariah Zins, Edmeades and Gabrielli.

Rancho Cucamonga-, has only recently becoming noticed by Zin drinkers despite the fact that its Zinfandel vineyards are some of the oldest in California. Wineries from this district are Lopez Winery, Geyser Peak Winery in Geyserville which produces a Zinfandel from old Rancho Cucamonga vines, as do a number of Temecula Valley wineries (South Coast, Hart and Thornton, to name a few) and San Diego County’s Orfila Vineyards. One Item that I would like to mention about Zins from Temecula is that they tend to have a raison/prune taste. This is the result of being grown in a very hot area. Warmer regions tend to produce great Zins, but is there a point where it can actually impart flavors that may not be as accepted by wine drinkers? Topic for another day.

Zinfandel is one red varietal that is probably best enjoyed within three to five years of the vintage. With more bottle age than this, the fruit that distinguishes Zinfandel drops markedly and the wine can show a pronounced “hot” taste of higher alcohol levels.

Zinfandel grapes produce wines with flavors raspberry, cherry, blackberry, zesty and spicy-pepper character which combined with its earthy tar and leather aromas means that this grape can truly produce a wide range of wine styles. This was seen at our tasting where we had the elegant, rich light style of the Williams Selyem compared to the bold character of the Brochelle with its full body and very pronounced fruit profile. Below is a chart that shows the common aroma and flavor characteristics of Zinfandel wines.

Typical Zinfandel Smelland/or Flavor Descriptors

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:
Processing Bouquets/Flavors:
Fruit: raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry, cranberry, black cherry, (jammy can be used with all)
Carbonic Maceration: tutti-frutti, candy, bubblegum
Herbal: briar, licorice, nettle
Oak (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood
Spice: cinnamon, black pepper
Oak (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar

Bottle Age: musk, mushroom, earth, leather cedar, cigar box

Here is Appellation Americas comical overview of the zinfandel grapes to help us remember what a Zin is all about:

Zinfandel, 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 often 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!

It is great that we had wines from a few of the 7 known zinfandel regions of California. It was quite impressive seeing all of the subtle differences between them. Here are the notes from the Zin wines that were brought tonight.
Tasted Wines

2007 Layer Cake Primitivo – Puglia Italy

Aroma: Licorice, Musty, Nothing really stood out on the nose
Taste: Licorice , Creamy, Spices
In fairness to this wine, I tried this wine the day after the tasting and was detecting dark fruits in nose and taste, definite candidate for decanting. I have not been a firm follower of decanting as I like to smell and taste the changes of a wine over time. Unfortunately, at a tasting some wines do not get a chance to breath and open up.
wine maker’s notes:
Could not find any ratings
September 16, 2008 – Napa Valley, Calif. – Jayson Woodbridge, renowned global winemaker and owner/winemaker of Hundred Acre and Layer Cake wine brands, today announced that celebrated winemaker, consultant and good friend, Philippe Melka, will join his Layer Cake winemaking team. Layer Cake Wines demonstrate Jayson Woodbridge’s vision of crafting wines based on his own personal experiences and journeys with people and vineyards around the globe. The high quality, handcrafted wines consist of a one hundred percent Old Vine Primitivo (Zinfandel) from Puglia, Italy, Shiraz from the Barossa Valley and South Australia, a Côtes Du Rhône from the Rhône Valley in France, and a Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, all retailing for just $15.99 – an incredible value.
Tasting Notes :
The wine is opaque and purple-colored with a nose of jammy black cherry and blackberry fruit, truffles, tar, and spice. Warm and rich in the mouth; the ripe fruit is well supported by the depth of the structure.

2006 Brochelle – Paso Robles

Aroma: Coffee, Chocolate

Taste: Licorice , Creamy, Spices
wine maker’s notes:
Unable to find ratings
Tasting Notes :
Layers upon layers (upon layers!) of elegantly perfumed and richly structured fruit that dances excitedly on the palate. An essence of warm, fresh baked gingerbread cookies can be found within. You will uncover notes of deep caramel, black currants and blackberry jam. There is a densely textured mouthfeel and grand finale comprising a kiss of pumpkin pie spice.
~Drink now and until 2020.

2004 Mariah – Mendocino Valley

Aroma: Blackberries, Vanilla, Lacquer (when first opened)
Taste: Vanilla , Red apple, Blackberries, Dry on the palate, Pepper, Light body like William Selyem
wine maker’s notes:
· Connoisseurs’ Guide Rating: 87pts
15% Petite Sirah; 5% Syrah; 1% Carignane. This wine’s intense first nose of ripe blackberries and sweet spices belies its tightly structured character in the mouth. Both acid and tannin take on major roles, and more than balance the ripe fruit flavors that rise up underneath.

2004 Rancho Zabaco Toreador – Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma

Aroma: Dark Plum, Blueberry, Jammy
Taste: · Dark plums · Blueberries · Very Acidic when first opened but left as it opened up
Remember the topic on good and bad acids in wines that I wrote a couple of weeks ago? This is an example of acetic acid which is a volatile acid. This is what is known as a bad acid. Don’t confuse it with Tannic or Malolactic acids which are what are called good acids and are needed to provide character and longevity to a wine. Being volatile, acetic acid will not remain in the wine once the bottle is opened and exposed to air. Decanting will assist in fast removal of this type of acid.
wine maker’s notes:
Robert Parker : 94 points.
The 2004 Zinfandel Monte Rosso Toreador is absolutely amazing and one of the great Zinfandels of that vintage. This wine boasts a dense ruby/purple color and a big, sweet nose of ground pepper, dried herbs, lavender, black cherry jam, raspberry, and licorice. Full-bodied, powerful, and concentrated, this stunning Zinfandel should drink well for up to a decade.

2005 Storybook Mountain Vineyards Estate – Napa Valley

Aroma: Berries,Vanilla, Wine with great finesse
Taste: · Fruit Forward · Noticeable tannins
wine maker’s notes:
· Wine&Spirits: 95 points.
· Connoisseurs’ Guide: 95 points
“Irresistible …aromas pile up in a heady rush of roses, wildflowers, crushed rock and black pepper. The dark, glass-coating pomegranate color shows off its power…”
95 PTS.- 100 best wines of the year.
Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wines:
In more vintages than not, this bottling has turned out to be our favorite from Storybook Mountain. And here again, it is a ripe, generous, yet impeccably balanced wine whose keen blackberry fruit in nose and mouth comes with a mix of intensity and youthful restraint that promises more and better as the wine ages. Fullness plays off against firming acids, and tannin crops up in the late going, and so much about this lovely wine calls for a bit of patience that we would caution against early drinking lest you miss the best it will have to offer.

2007 William Selyem Baciagalupi Vineyard – Russian River Valley Sonoma

Aroma: Blackberries, Red Raspberries, Cherry
Taste: Bing Cherries, dryness to the palate, Minerality to the finish, Characteristics of a Pinot (not a typical zin profile), Very elegant and classy wine
wine maker’s notes:
· Robert Parker: 93 points
Wine Advocate As for the 2007 Zinfandel Bacigalupi , this wine is dense, chewy, medium to full-bodied, with relatively elevated alcohol, loads of spice, red and black fruits, as well as herbs and underbrush.

The nose exhibits concentrated blackberries, dark chocolate and black pepper with unadulterated wild raspberry jam. The same depth of fruit fills your mouth with hints of roasted cocoa, coffee and anise. Full and concentrated in the mouth, the finish is thick, lush and maturely tannic. 15.1% alc.—Winemaker Bob CabralDetailed Wine InformationAppellation: Russian River ValleyVineyard Notes: The grapes for this wine come from a small block of old vine zinfandel in the Russian River Valley. The Bacigalupi zinfandel vineyard is less than 2 acres of 90+ year-old head pruned vines, which naturally yield low tonnage that produces very concentrated wines.Vintage Notes: For this wine, Bob selected hand-made French oak barrels, with medium-plus toast. The wine was aged for 14 months in Francois Freres, Troncais oak barrels, 84% one-year-old, 16% two-year-old. 15.1% Alcohol, 0.65g/100ml TA, 3.43 pHReleased Spring 2007


Hopefully, we will have some converts within the group to try more Zinfandel wines. My perfect evening in the winter is to sit down in front of a fireplace and relish the spices mixed into layers of fruits of a fine Zinfandel. Remember, this is what we enjoy around the Christmas holiday. This Christmas, treat yourself to a piece of ginger bread with a fine Zin. If you want to go a step further, try a late harvest Zin with the concentrated fruits and sugars. I doubt that you will be disappointed.

I hope that the evening of Zins that we shared with their wide range of tastes and characteristics will lead you in a search for what your palate considers a perfect wine.

Until next time…Cheers,