Fermenting Options with Rich Mauro :
All my life, I seem to have had a soft spot for the underdog, the kid who was struggling in class, the person no one was talking to at the party, people struggling at the bottom rungs of society. That orientation has its corollary with red wines, as California Zinfandel has long been my favorite red wine, while most consumers have flocked to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.
To my mind and more importantly my palate, there are many reasons Zinfandel should be the most popular California red wine. I mostly love Zinfandel because it captures the essence of exuberance and zest in a glass.
It can be made in different styles, each with its own charms. Some wineries fashion it in a big and bold style with high alcohol (up to 16.5 percent!), jammy fruit and immense weight. Others seek a more balanced, elegant, nuanced style. Alcohol is generally around 14 percent and fruit is fresh and juicy, with a lively, precise palate, spicy without too much heat. (The wines in this report, except the Opolo, range from 14-15 percent alcohol).
With either style, the signature flavor profile presents raspberry, black cherry or blackberry fruit accented with spice (sage, pepper) and a brash, even a little wild character often described as briar or bramble, though with moderate tannin. Zinfandel also ages well, typically reaching its peak around 5-to-10 years but capable of being enjoyed well after.
Zinfandel’s fruity, spicy, rich and earthy characteristics enable it to pair well with a variety of cuisine, including barbecue, basically any meat, grilled vegetables, and various spicy ethnic foods. It’s also versatile enough to play with the varied foods typical of holiday meals.
Zinfandel is grown successfully all over the state. And some zinfandel vineyards are among the oldest in the U.S. The best of these demonstrate the quality possible with old vines more than any other grape. Thus, the term “Old Vine” has become a badge of honor for producers and a clue to special character for consumers. Ideally, such vines yield more concentrated grapes and ultimately more intense and complex wines. [The term is not regulated (though most respectable producers use at least fifty years old as a cut off), so labels are on the honor system and often abused by marketers.]
Though many of these vineyards are known for their zinfandel, they are not necessarily 100 percent zinfandel. They may include petite sirah, carignan, alicante bouchet and sometimes grapes that have not been identified. The resulting wines generally are referred to as “field blends”.
Even better, Zinfandel is one of the best values in wine, considering the overall quality, which can rival the finest wines in the world. Almost all of the best wines are under $50; most of the best wines are under $40; and there are countless good ones under $25.
Finally, I like Zinfandel because it is the quintessentially American grape: an immigrant that came here in the early 1800s [first New York and then California, from humble origins in Europe (born in Croatia through Austria and southern Italy)] and has succeeded here better than anywhere else (grown successfully all over California). And it really is the only grape that makes indisputably better wine in California than anywhere else.
Below are many fine options among current releases.
Sierra Foothills. Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Sacramento, this is one of the oldest wine growing regions in California, with grapes planted in the mid-1800s, often by former gold seekers. It encompasses eight counties but many of my favorites come from Amador County, as do the wines below.
- 2014 Renwood Special Reserve Grandpere Vineyard ($50) dense, jammy, highly structured
- 2015 Terra d’Oro Deaver Vineyard ($30) spicy, briary, minerally
- 2014 Renwood “Premier Old Vine” ($20) hearty, fruit packed
Mendocino. After the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, many of the “49ers” made their way to places like the Redwood Valley in California’s northern most wine region and zinfandel was a favorite among the grapes they planted, often in field blends. They were joined by many Italian immigrants in the later half of the century, a development that further increased interest in zinfandel.
- 2015 Artezin Old Vine ($18) solid but inviting
- 2014 Ravenswood Old Vine ($20) soft, juicy, woodsy
Sonoma County. One could argue that Sonoma (with a zinfandel history similar to Mendocino and beauties from the valleys of Dry Creek, Russian River, Sonoma and Alexander) is the premier source of superior zinfandel in the state. Not all of the valleys were represented in my tasting but here is ample evidence:
From Dry Creek Valley:
- 2014 Dry Creek Vineyard Old Vine ($32) intense, average 95+ year-old vines
- 2014 Sbragia Gino’s ($34) inviting, concentrated
- 2014 Martin Ray Puccioni ($30) juicy, herbal
- 2015 Pedroncelli Mother Clone ($16) dry, woodsy
From Sonoma Valley: 2014 Kunde ($22) from estate grown, sustainably farmed fruit serves up flavorful, supple wine.
And there are many good values that carry a Sonoma County designation:
- 2015 Dry Creek Vineyard “Heritage Vines” ($25) rustic, though easy going
- 2014 Ravenswood Old Vine ($18) fresh, weighty, from all the major Sonoma appellations
- 2015 Decoy ($25), balanced, intense, the entry-level brand of Duckhorn
Napa Valley. Though it is best known for world class Cabernet, the Napa Valley is surprisingly reliable for Zinfandel. Here are four really good ones:
- 2015 Robert Biale Black Chicken ($48) zesty, complex
- 2014 Frank Family ($37) luscious, earthy
- 2014 Chateau Montelena ($39) rich, supple
- 2014 Ravenswood Old Vine ($18) bold, zesty
The Central Coast also is in on the Zinfandel parade in a big way but unfortunately was underrepresented in my tasting. Still I did find two to recommend.
- Paso Robles. 2015 Opolo ($29). At 16.3 percent alcohol, this is super ripe, unabashedly big and sweet but reasonably balanced.
- Arroyo Grande. 2014 Saucelito Canyon ($35) lively, brambly berry fruit
Lodi. For many in the wine industry, Lodi (in the San Joaquin Valley in the heart of what is known as the Central Valley, California’s breadbasket) is synonymous with Zinfandel. According to the Lodi Winegrape Commission, the region grows over 40 percent of California’s zinfandel grapes and the largest acreage of old vines. Many of the wines made with those grapes are lower priced but like the easy-going 2013 Scotto ($14) are good everyday values.
Lodi also wants to showcase those old vines. While old vine Zinfandel is justly revered by consumers, it is a challenge for growers, who often struggle to maintain these low yielding vineyards economically. This has led to concerns within the industry about the loss of these treasures of history, culture and taste.
Three years ago, the Lodi Native Project was created to celebrate these heritage plantings by pairing six winegrowers from six distinct vineyards with six different winemakers who followed strict, minimalist protocols. The resulting six wines showcase the unique qualities of each vineyard (35 to over 100 year old vines), not just the varietal character or brand style, thus demonstrating the diversity Lodi Zinfandel. The 2014 Lodi Native™ growers and winemakers are:
Growers, Jerry Fry & Brue Fry (Mohr-Fry Ranches)
Winemaker, Stuart Spencer (St. Amant Winery)
Maley’s Lucas Road Vineyard
Grower, Todd Maley
Winemaker, Tim Holdener (Macchia Wines)
Grower, Kevin Soucie
Winemaker, Layne Montgomery (m2 Wines)
Grower, Jeff Perlegos & Joh Perlegos
Winemaker, Ryan Sherman (Fields Family Wines)
Lot 13 Vineyard
Grower & Winemaker, Michael McCay (McCay Cellars)
Grower, Todd Maley
Winemaker, Chad Joseph (Maley Brothers)
I have no experience with these vineyards, so I can’t say definitively that the wines reflect their terroir. But I can say each wine demonstrates the elegance and purity of Lodi’s best. You can taste these distinctive terroirs by purchasing the 6-bottle wood box ($180 plus tax and shipping) at www.lodiwine.com, or by phone (209-365-0621) to the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center.
Finally, there are the wines that carry a “California” designation. Again, most honestly are lower quality meant for uncritical sipping. But occasionally one finds a serious wine, as with the 2015 Saldo ($32). This blend of multiple regions (in this case Dry Creek, Lodi and Amador) has abundant, jammy fruit with toasty oak and a lush texture.