Zin Zin Zin
“Zin Today, Repent Tomorrow!” So reads one of my tee-shirts, typical of the ‘tongue in cheek’ associated with what is truly California’s grape, Zinfandel.
Some of the wine names carry on the puns: ‘Cardinal Zin’, ‘Seven Deadly Zins’, Inzinerator, etc., but this is a legitimate and distinctive grape making some delicious wines.
All our best wines originate from European “Vitis Vinifera” grapes. While we knew the origin of grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Zinfandel, until recently, has been a mystery.
One surprise for those only acquainted with sweeter “blush” examples is that Zinfandel is a red grape. Today, ‘White’ Zinfandel still outsells red by at least 5 to 1. In the 1970’s, with little demand for the red version, growers were starting to rip out the old Zinfandel vines, but when Sutter Home Winery discovered they could make a very appealing blush wine, the vineyards got a reprieve.
When demand for the red wine returned, some very special vineyards made their comeback.
There are Zinfandel vines in California that are over 120 years old and still producing, but no one knew where they originated. Now, thanks to careful research, Zinfandel, along with its close Italian relative, Primitivo, has been traced to an obscure Croatian grape, “Crljenak Kastelanski”.
A mere nine vines discovered in 2001 on the Dalmatian coast led to the identification. Prior to that there was lots of speculation, including claims that a Hungarian, Count Agoston Haraszthy, had introduced the vine to California. That was apparently more wishful thinking than reality.
In fact, Zinfandel was among the grapes, imported from the Austrian Imperial Nursery in Vienna to Long Island by George Gibbs around 1830, which eventually found their way to Cailfornia. By 1900, it was the most heavily planted grape in the state. It became a mainstay for home winemakers a couple of generations ago who were still making their wine from grapes as opposed to juice or concentrate.
If you like Australian Shiraz, then you should really enjoy good Zinfandels. In my experience, the wines tend to have significant raspberry and blackberry flavour, as well as black cherry. This can be accompanied by spices such as pepper and cinnamon.
At a tasting in Toronto sponsored by ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, I was a little apprehensive at the thought of trying to taste dozens of big red wines. Often young and tannic, they can clobber your taste buds so that shortly it’s difficult to differentiate one from another.
I asked Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, where the motto is “No Wimpy Wines”, if there was some way to navigate the dark currents. Peterson said that in tasting, you learn most from the smell. Then, you need only a very little wine – a teaspoon – to get the rest of the flavours. Try to take time between wines, and don’t rinse your glass. (He quoted Robert Mondavi, who advised, “Wine tastes more like wine than water.”) He even suggested avoiding drinking too much water or eating bread between wines, as that can confuse the palate, too.
I took Peterson’s advice, and was surprised with the extent to which my taste-buds survived; however, I think that Zinfandels tend to have less abrasive tannins than other notable red wines in their youth.
That day, I experienced several yummy wines, including many “Old Vine” Zinfandels. To qualify, the vines are at least 50 years old, though some are much older, even over a hundred. The older the vines, the lower the yield,usually less than 3 tons per acre. The fewer the grapes, the more concentrated the flavour.
From the Lopez Vineyard at Cucamonga, Carol Shelton makes her Monga Zin from 90 year old vines growing on the edge of the desert between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Dry-farmed, these small old vines send their roots down 40 to 50 feet to find moisture. The yield? A mere half-ton per acre!
It has been described as untamed and rustic with layered flavours. The vines are believed to pick up another dimension of flavour from each layer of soil they pass through.
Shelton’s wines aren’t listed currently, though some can be ordered through “vintageslatest.com” this month on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. You may have to subscribe to get to the sale site.
Another winery in that sale is Rock Wall Wine Company. It’s the new winery operated by Kent Rosenblum with his daughter Shauna as winemaker. Rosenblum was one of the best Zinfandel makers with his old company which he sold a few years ago. His new wines are terrific.
The Monte Rosso 2009 was wonderfully complex yet smooth. It was like drinking Armani! It’s $45, but I noted that there were several wineries producing from the Monte Rosso vineyard, and they were all in that price range. The $27 Jessie’s Vineyard was also beautiful with soft tannins and black cherry.
We don’t find a lot of Zins in Ontario, but they are worth seeking out as they appear in the Vintages program. From $13 to $60, they are less expensive generally than California’s Pinot Noirs or Cabernet Sauvignons, often $50 to $80 and much higher.
Delicato’s Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel is on sale this month for $14.95. It’s fruity with some black currant nuances. Delicato also has a Bold Vine Zinfandel in the Vintages sale mentioned above for $18.
Gallo’s general list Dancing Bull would qualify as an “entry level” example for $12.95. It intentionally emphasizes the sweet red fruit, with pepper and spice on the finish.
Another general list Zin, Sledgehammer,is at best a 6-pound sledge, not 12 or 16. It’s decent, with a sweet dollop of fruit and spicy finish, but at $17.95, it’s pricey.
Also $17.95, Ravenswood’s Old Vine Vintner’s Blend is a Vintages Essential, mid-weight and not too jammy with forward fruit.
The Great Northern Road store also has the Peachy Canyon Westside Paso Robles Zinfandel 2008 along with the Folie a Deux 2008. Both $24.95, they really show the big fruit style. Father’s Day, anyone?
For something different, look to the general list $13.55 Vigne & Vini Zinfandel Primitivo del Salento from Puglia in southern Italy. Primitivo is a clone of Zinfandel, but the style is quite distinct. The impact is drier than American Zins, Plum and tart cherry character and more bite on the palate result in a very good wine.
P.S. If you’ve had enough of red, there are some excellent Chardonnays in the vintages section at the great Northern Road store. I tasted these “blind” along with some in the $40 range, and these were better.
Arboleda 2010 Chardonnay, Chile- $15.95 Wine Access gave this a 91. It had a floral, tropical nose, with some peach. It was nicely balanced, light on entry, but persistent.
Henry of Pelham Estate Chardonnay 2010, Niagara- $19.95 Here, everything is integrated, everything works. An almost buttery impact, with juicy fruit and a touch of cinnamon. A light touch to this barrel fermented wine.
Stoney Ridge Warren Classic Chardonnay 2009, Niagara- $16.95 This was my favourite, impressive and harmonious, with a lovely nose of apple, sandalwood and butterscotch, and great good balance between ripe apple fruit and acidity.
P.P.S. If you really,really, really like your Dad, get him a bottle of the Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, California- $74.95. This amazing Cab is biodynamically produced, as deeply purple as you can imagine, with dense dark fruit and chocolate. It is tannic and needs a couple of years, but it will be beautiful. The Wine Spectator gave it a 93.