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Young or Aged, Zinfandel Is an American Treasure

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RavensWoodLogoThe 2006 harvest in parts of California was problematic, with late rains affecting the quality of some of the grapes.

Zinfandel would have been a sure target for spoilage because it’s a thin-skinned grape that’s packed tightly in clusters. Extra rain could create the perfect breeding ground for mold.

Yet you’d never have known that anything was amiss that year from a recent side-by-side tasting of eight 2006 bottlings from the near-mythical three R’s of the Zinfandel world: Ridge, Rosenblum and Ravenswood. (Red Zinfandel, of course, not white.)

The wines, poured during the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, ranged in style from the sleek world of Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton Springs to the jammy fruit bomb of Rosenblum Cellars’ Rockpile Road. As Helen Mackey of Rosenblum said, “Zinfandel has so many different personalities.”

All showed depth that went beyond first impressions and excellent structure, leading moderator and Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser to proclaim that “any of the wines on this table (can age) 12 to 15 years plus.”

Yet they are also enjoyable now because of their youthful fruitiness.

That begs the question: When do you drink Zinfandel?

There are two camps on this issue.

One would have been horrified that more than 50 people paid to taste excellent wines so young and rob them of the chance to gain greater complexity with age. “The more mature a good Zin gets,” Master Sommelier Joe Spellman said, “the more it behaves like other good wines.”

The other side preaches that it’s best to drink a Zinfandel the moment it is released, as if each drop had flowed from the fountain of youth and would lose its power with age.

There’s no winner in this argument. It inevitably comes down to personal tastes and how much storage space you have to let a wine age. (Though in an era when 90 percent of all wine is drunk within the first month of purchase, you know where the vast majority of drinkers end up.)

In the world of Ridge wines, Zinfandel is a loose term, according to the winery’s national sales manager, Dan Buckler, because the world isn’t prominent displayed on the label and it isn’t bottled by itself. The ’06 bottlings feature Petite Sirah and Carignan in the blends.

The winery uses only American oak, which might lead you think the wines would be bolder than others, yet one taste of either the Geyserville or the Lytton Springs would lead you think otherwise. Supple tannins, restrained fruit and mineral notes gave both wines a refinement that showed how elegant this wine can be. A 16-percent addition of Petite Sirah was noticeable in the Lytton Springs, but again it was more structural and a broadening of flavors than it was the bombast that makes petite sirah so beloved among a growing number of wine drinkers.

Joel Peterson at Ravenswood uses only French oak for his wines. But, again, that doesn’t automatically lead to a more restrained style.

“The beauty of Zinfandel is the wide range of fruit you get,” Gaiser said after tasting the Ravenswood’s Old Hill Zinfandel, made with fruit from 135-year-old vines.

Flavors of everything from cranberry to black cherry to plum can appear, and in this case, the fruit had a chalky component as well as a touch of mint mingled in. A note of fennel could be detected on the Barricia, while the Teldeshi was all intensity, in terms of both fruit and tannin. The Teldeshi was a wine that “either needs some time or needs something that you go out and grill the hell out of in the back yard,” Gaiser said.

The three wines from Rosenblum Cellars were a study in contrasts and commonalities. The full-bodied Rockpile Road packed a wallop of fruit flavors. Carla’s was more acidic with notes of black raspberry and leather, and Harris Kratka was jammy with strong tannins and a hint of white pepper.

Yet all three shared a common touch of licorice under all the fruit, and an intensity that came from judicious oak usage (Rosenblum uses both American and French oak, mixing the flavors in service of the grape).

Styles are not the only variable when discussing Znfandel. The prices of the eight wines ranged from about $18 to $55 a bottle. And the alcohol level varied, too, those these were largely under 15 percent, while others on the market can top 17 percent.

Though debate still rages over the origins of the Zinfandel grape, it has generally come to be regarded as the American varietal. And that is what the panel was designed to celebrate, while honoring the memory of Donn Riesen, former Ridge president and longtime Zinfandel advocate, who died in January.

After tasting the array — and drinking every last drop of several favorites (the two Ridges, the Ravenswood Old Hill and the Rosenblum Rockpile Road) – it seemed almost superfluous when Gaiser asked, “Do we all have a happy glow for Zinfandel?”

Now, if only I had just one of those Zins with a plate of braised short ribs …

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2 Responses to “Young or Aged, Zinfandel Is an American Treasure”

  1. Heather says:

    Rosenblum is our go-to wine for Thanksgiving dinner…it pairs so perfectly! Although, it’s also good anytime…

    • John Griffin says:

      Excellent winery, and their Vinter’s Cuvee Zinfandel (not tried at the tasting mentioned in the article) is affordable, especially if you need a couple of bottles to pass around to the entire family.

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