Wines of the Month


Unrepentant Zinner

That's me. And hopefully it describes some of you, too. Those of you who have been here before probably have already noticed that I'm a big fan of Zins; almost every month when I'm thinking about wines to include in these articles, I seem to have a Zinfandel on the list of candidates. However, I wouldn't want to take the chance of boring you -- or myself -- with a single-varietal, monochromatic (don't even think about mentioning White Zin) approach toward wine. But, because it has been almost half a year since I first wrote about Zins, I think I should be allowed to indulge myself with another article. Besides, I've tasted some pretty good ones lately.

So what's the big deal about Zinfandel? For me, it comes down to four "F" factors: food, forward, finance, and fun. Whether I'm cooking at home or going out to eat, I tend to enjoy foods with bold flavors. Much of my diet consists of foods which have a fair amount of spice -- both in the sense of hot peppers and other spices -- and those types of foods can overwhelm a lot of wines. I wouldn't even want to attempt a delicate red Burgundy with a chipotle-marinated steak, for example. I find that Zins, with their bold fruit and spicy nuances, can stand up to a wide range of foods, from Italian (Zin is one of my favorite matches with pasta or pizza) to Chinese (a Zin with some anise notes, like the Ridge Lytton Springs below, works great with my father-in-law's twice-cooked 5-spice duck recipe). But Zin doesn't only go with spicy foods; it also works just fine with grilled meats and many other recipes. Often, when I don't know what wine to open, I'll find myself choosing a Zin, and I'm rarely disappointed.

The second reason I like Zinfandel is that most of them can be enjoyed from the day they are released. I'm not the most patient person, and I like to be able to pop open the cork of a new purchase without fearing that my mouth will be shredded by harsh tannins. Even the Zins which have a track record of improving with some bottle age (like Ridge Geyserville) still taste good when young. I'm not saying, of course, that all wines should be like Zinfandel, but I do end up drinking more of the wines which are easily approachable, even in their youth.

Many people criticize Zinfandel as not being age-worthy enough to be a great wine, saying that it's just a flashy, showy wine which can't handle the long haul. I'm not even going to address the assumption that a wine must be able to improve with age in order to be great (that's a subject for a whole column of its own), but I will admit that there may be a grain of truth to their position. Many Zinfandels do not age well (though I can't resist pointing out that there are plenty of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines which don't age well either), but some definitely do, particularly in the medium-term. It really shouldn't come as much of a surprise that winemakers may still be figuring out the grape, given the relative youth of much of California's producers and vineyards when compared to those of Europe. One argument I've often heard is that Zinfandel becomes too "Claret-like" when very old, losing the distinctive Zinfandel character. Strangely, the people who make this argument often are the same ones who enjoy drinking older Bordeaux. They apparently enjoy the flavor when it comes from one set of grapes, but not when it comes from another. For me, what is most important is the wine in the bottle. If I enjoy it, I'm not going to worry whether it came from an "inferior" grape, producer or region. However, that said, they may have a point: as great as Zin tastes young, why bother turning it into just another Claret?

The third reason is financial. Sure, Zinfandel prices have been escalating over the past few years, as have many California wine prices, but in general, Zinfandel is still fairly reasonably priced. Sure, there are a few producers who are releasing bottles in the $50-60 range, but you can still find excellent bottles for $20 or less, and some top wines, like the Ridge single-vineyard bottles can be found for around $30 or less. I know that this is comparing apples to oranges, but just try to find a top-of-the-line California Cabernet Sauvignon for $30; these days, $50 is pretty much mid-range for Cabs. I do wish that there were more really good Zins in the $7-12 range, but there are still plenty of very good bottles available from about $14-20.

The final "F", and perhaps the most important one is that Zinfandel is fun. Maybe it's because you don't have to pay $80 for a great bottle. Or because you don't have to wait 30 years to drink it. Or just because Zins tend to be a big mouthful of fruit which don't demand that you sit still, seriously contemplating life, the universe and everything, in order to truly enjoy them. Sure, there's a time and place for big, complex, serious wines, but I think there should also be plenty of time for mouth-pleasing, easy-to-enjoy wines, and Zins deliver the goods. One whiff of a big raspberry or blackberry dominated Zinfandel has been known to lighten the mood of the most somber guests. Zinfandel is a wine to enjoy, and after all, that's why I drink wine: because I enjoy it.

Bonny Doon "Cardinal Zin" Zinfandel California '97 -- What wine could be more appropriate for the first review in an article with this title? Big fruity nose of straightforward red raspberry and cherry. More exuberant fruit in the mouth, with raspberry, blackberry, and black cherry flavors. Seems like there might be a some residual sugar. Could be more concentrated, but I've found that to be the case with many '97 Zins. Finishes with a fresh raspberry zing, which seems a bit sweet and simple after a while. Not much backbone here; this is a wine to drink fresh and young. Serious Zin fans may be disappointed with this wine; I find that it's a "love it or hate it" bottle. Is it obvious and straightforward? Yes. But I think it's a fun, if simple, mouthful of fruit to drink with friends in a casual setting.

Howell Mountain Zinfandel Black Sears Vineyard Napa Valley '96 -- Shifting gears a bit, we have a really serious Zin. Complex aromas of plum, blackberry, tobacco and a touch of mint tell you that there's some depth here. Much more tannic than most Zins, but with a deep core of plum, black cherry, tobacco flavors. The question is, "Will the fruit outlast the tannin?" The answer is, "I don't know," but the slightly lean finish is a bit worrisome. Still, with some coaxing, the finish opens up a bit, with more black cherry, plum and tobacco. Probably better in one to three years, and it may last much longer.

Ridge Sonoma Station Sonoma '96 -- I can't think of a better way to end a Zin article than with a Ridge wine; unless it's with two... The first is a lower-end offering which is not one of the famous single-vineyard wines, and as a result, carries a more reasonable sticker price. This wine is a Zinfandel-based blend (as is the Lytton Springs, below), which isn't labeled as a varietal wine in order to give Ridge more flexibility in determining the final blend of grapes each year. At first it seems slightly shy, but with some swirling, expressive plum and black cherry aromas appear. Those aromas carry over in a big way onto the lush palate, along with some spicy, peppery hints. Finishes with generous red cherry and plum flavors, along with slightly rustic tannins. Fruit driven with a enough complexity to hold your interest, it's hard to imagine this wine improving too much. This vintage is much better than the '95 Sonoma Station, and for about the same price as the Cardinal Zin, I'll take the Ridge.

Ridge Lytton Springs Sonoma '97 -- Closed and brooding, this wine needs at least a year or two before drinking. Definitely shy at first with modest plum and toasty oak aromas. Opens up with some time and air, gaining a little "funk" (reminiscent of Ridge Geyserville, but not as intense). Dense, soupy texture with plum, black cherry, blackberry, spice, anise and oak flavors. There seems to be more here than it's willing to give up right now. Ends with mouth-filling red cherry and plum flavors, and smooth, round tannins. Remarkably similar in style to the Sonoma Station '96. Tasted side-by-side, there was no doubt that these were both Ridge wines, though the Lytton seemed weightier, more complex and less fruit-driven. Doesn't have quite the intensity of the best years of the '90's, but it's still an excellent Zin.

As always, comments are welcome.

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Copyright 1999 by Marcel Lachenmann.