In the not-so-distant past many California zinfandels were elegant and supple, with upfront fruity appeal and the depth to age. While there were also a number of ripe, weighty examples, including sweet late-harvest renditions, those were usually exceptions rather than the rule. The restrained style was especially true of zins emanating from the cooler North Coast regions of the state.
Styles changed drastically in the early 1990s with the arrival of a tidal wave of full-throttle zins that still define the variety for many wine lovers. While flamboyant monster zins with huge fruit and volume can impress with their sheer power, they are notoriously difficult to pair with food. They can also knock you on your keister, as they regularly cruise past the 16% alcohol mark.
Happily, a handful of producers never changed their style. And today, a new generation of American wine drinkers appears to be fully embracing old-school zinfandel. That predilection tracks closely with the popularity of pinot noir, which at its best is silky and vibrant, qualities that traditional zinfandels exhibit too.
We taste many zins each year for the IWC’s annual coverage of California (massive coverage of the North Coast is featured in the current issue) and I’ve highlighted some standouts that show traditional zin character at its best.
Hartford Family Winery produces some of California’s best and most ageworthy zins but their single-vineyard bottlings run over $50. Although they’re worth it, savvy winos should try the 2010 Zinfandel Old Vine Russian River Valley ($35), which is made from vines averaging more than 85 years of age. With its spicy red and dark berry aromas and flavors, floral and smoke accents, and touch of vanillin oak, it’s flat-out delicious right now.
Many zin fans consider Ridge Vineyards the reference point for the variety. That’s understandable as Ridge has been making balanced, ageworthy versions since the early 1960s. The 2010 Zinfandel East Bench Dry Creek Valley ($28) shows intense cherry-vanilla and blueberry aromas, a fleshy texture and impressive energy. There’s already a sexy floral quality to it that makes it pretty irresistible now, but sneaky tannins suggest that it really deserves some patience.
The Dashe Cellars 2009 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley ($24) is a bright, racy wine that showcases fresh, subtly sweet red fruit and floral flavors accented by peppery spices. Its energy and zestiness make it extremely flexible with food, especially grilled chicken or pasta with tomato-based sauces.
Ravenswood Winery’s Joel Peterson is probably more responsible for the promotion of zinfandel than any other winemaker. Ravenswood makes wines from other grapes but their calling card has been zin since the mid-1970s. The 2009 Zinfandel Dickerson Vineyard Napa Valley ($35) displays perfumed black raspberry and cherry character, with suave floral and spice nuances. Its combination of depth and energy bodes well for cellaring but I find it delicious right now. Also try the 2009 Zinfandel Barricia Vineyard Sonoma Valley ($35), an exotically perfumed wine that offers intense red and dark berry aromas and flavors with sexy violet and spice accents. This silky, sappy wine can be enjoyed now, especially with a little air. I was also impressed by the bright, nervy character of the 2009 Zinfandel Belloni Russian River Valley ($35), which clocks in at a relatively low 13.5% alcohol and shows powerful cherry and dark berry flavors with a refreshingly tangy acidity. Its low-fat character will appeal to those who find most California red wines too rich and weighty.
Bargain hunters should try Ravenswood’s widely available entry-level zins as well. The 2009 Zinfandel Old Vine Sonoma County ($19) is a deeply fruity, energetic, open-knit wine that shows the house style to full effect at a great price. And the dirt cheap 2009 Vintners Blend Zinfandel California ($10) makes a great everyday wine, thanks to its seamless texture and fresh, straightforward red and dark berry character. There are literally millions of bottles of this wine to go around, by the way, and it is often available for under $8.