Investigations into the origins of Zinfandel are underway in California. STEPHEN BROOK finds that the winemakers have different ideas about its future

Investigations into the origins of Zinfandel are underway in California. STEPHEN BROOK finds that the winemakers have different ideas about its future

Decanter magazine, December 2000

About the only thing that Zinfandel can’t do is ride a bicycle blindfold. Indeed, its very versatility has marred its reputation. You can make it pink and dry, pink and slightly sweet, red and juicy, red and sweet, red and alcoholic, or as a ‘port’. Each style has its devotees, although the so-called ‘white Zinfandel’, usually vinified as a sickly rosé, has few admirers among serious wine lovers.

For some years there has been intense debate over the origins of Zinfandel. It is the same variety as Primitivo, yet not necessarily of Puglian origin, since there is no confirmed record of its having been planted there before 1850. By the 1820s American nurserymen had brought cuttings from Austria to Long Island. From there the grape was shipped to California. It is also related to the Croatian variety Plavac Mali. Genetic research at UC Davis has established that Zinfandel is either one of the parents of Plavac Mali, or that Plavac Mali is one of the parents of Zinfandel. A definitive answer is said to be imminent.

Whatever Zinfandel’s origin, it soon became a variety ideally suited to California’s warm, dry climate. It flourished on the benchlands of northern Sonoma, on the warm rocky soils of northern Napa around Calistoga, on the flattish vineyards around Lodi, and in San Luis Obispo county. Nineteenth-century vineyards are still going strong in the Sierra Foothills. In Mendocino producers such as Hidden Cellars and Fife have sought out the best old vineyards from hillside sites.

Ironically, the commercial success of white Zinfandel has been the saviour of the variety, which might otherwise have been grubbed up and replaced by more fashionable Bordeaux varieties. Devotees of serious red Zinfandel – Paul Draper of Ridge, Kent Rosenblum in Berkeley, Jerry Seps of Storybook Mountain and Joel Peterson of Ravenswood – kept interest alive by releasing marvellous wines at sensible prices. Today, annual meetings of ZAP (Zinfandel Appreciation Society) are mobbed.

With some 125 wineries now producing Zinfandel, competition is fierce for the best old vine fruit. Robert Biale, a Zinfandel specialist in Napa, points out that the variety only accounts for five percent of the area under vine in Napa Valley. Given how little Zinfandel survives in Napa, there are plenty of excellent wines to be found from wineries such as Burgess, Elyse, Biale, Markham, Storybook and Stonehedge.

Despite the demand, true old-vine Zinfandel is in decline through disease and ludicrously low yields. This is worrying, since modern clones of Zinfandel have proved mediocre, being originally developed for high-yielding vines destined for white Zinfandel. Fortunately, a handful of growers have supplied bud wood from the very best old vineyards in Sonoma, which should enable their genetic legacy to survive. UC Davis has also established a Heritage Project with over 50 different selections, but it will be years before these become available.

Even though prices have risen, Zinfandel continues to offer better value than most Cabernet or Merlot from California. But it lacks a clear profile, since the wine, even in its serious red manifestations, can show such stylistic variation. It should have a sweet berry fruit on the nose and palate, and it often has a jammy component, which some consumers like, and others detest. Nor is this stylistic question entirely in the hands of the grower. Zinfandel ripens unevenly, although green-harvesting can help to eliminate the least ripe bunches. But the same bunch can include ripe berries with a potential alcohol of 14 degrees, and raisined berries that can easily give 16.5. There is a vogue for powerful, high- alcohol Zinfandels. Turley is the leading producer with wines ranging in alcohol from 15 to 17. Most of them are vinified dry, but a few may have some residual sugar, rather like an Italian Recioto. In the late 1960s and 1970s there were quite a few late harvest Zinfandels on the market, almost always with some residual sugar; such wines could be delicious but usually cracked up after 10 years in bottle. The new wave of late harvest wines, however, tend to be bruisers.

I can’t disguise the fact that I dislike these wines, just as I dislike any wine with an alcoholic burn on the finish. Ripe Zinfandel can easily ferment to 15 degrees, and if properly vinified the result is rich, flamboyant and juicy. Paul Draper’s famed Zinfandels from Ridge vary in alcohol from 13.8 to 15 and seem extremely well balanced.

‘It’s the very big wines,’ Draper reflects, ‘that attract attention from the wine press. So any winemaker trying to make a name for himself with Zinfandel will aim for this high-alcohol style. There’s always been a cult of big wines in California, and with Zinfandel they’re not that hard to make.’

Turley argues that by picking late they can avoid high acidity, though I don’t discern any harsh acidity in the more moderate wines of Ravenswood and Nalle. They also believe that by waiting they end up with rounder and fleshier wines.

Certainly the flavour profile alters radically according to the ripeness levels at which the grapes are picked. According to Cecil DeLoach of Russian River Valley, Zinfandel harvested at 22 or 23 Brix – which would be unusually low in California – would taste of cranberries and raspberries; picked fully ripe at around 25 Brix, it tastes more of black fruits and blueberries; and picked very late it develops a taste of raisins, prunes and port.

Zinfandel is not a very tannic variety, so extraction is not really an issue. Paul Draper explains: ‘At Ridge we use a submerged cap method during fermentation. We don’t use cold soaks and we don’t punch down the cap. There’s no need to macerate the hell out of Zin.’ Joel Peterson of Ravenswood remarks: ‘Most producers don’t want to make Zinfandel as a vin de garde, especially as most consumers want juicy upfront wines with soft tannins. Personally, we like to make Zinfandel that has guts and balance.’ Mike Sullivan at Hartford Court in Russian River Valley handles Zinfandel just like Pinot Noir, fermenting in open-top vats and punching down the cap. There is no consensus on how to make Zinfandel.

As for oak, Ridge is one of many leading producers to age his Zinfandel in American oak, believing that its sweetish vanillin flavours blend well with the rich fruitiness of Zinfandel. Dan Cederquist, DeLoach’s winemaker, agrees. ‘Putting Zin into French oak,’ he says, ‘is like putting perfume on John Wayne.’ Nonetheless, some wineries, including Franus, Ravenswood and Pezzi King, use only French barrels for ageing their Zinfandel.

Whereas some producers, such as Frog’s Leap in Napa and Nalle in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, make a single wine, blending the fruit from various sources, most Zinfandel specialists delight in a range of single-vineyard bottlings. Turley, Biale, Ravenswood, Swan, Hartford Court, Storybook Farm, Elyse and Rosenblum may release up to a dozen different bottlings.

And this is where the fun begins. At Biale you can compare wines made from the old vines planted on Aldo Biale’s property on the fringes of Napa itself, with wines made from the celebrated Monte Rosso vineyard in Sonoma. Ravenswood makes a Monte Rosso too, which you can compare with the cedary Dickerson Vineyard from Napa Valley (90-year vines) or the powerful Old Hill bottling, with its black cherry and black pepper tones. Hartford Court releases four single-vineyard Zins, all from dry-farmed sites in Russian River Valley.

With so many corners of the state growing splendid Zinfandel, it’s hard to point to a heartland. But I think that honour has to go to Dry Creek Valley and northern Sonoma, the source of Ridge’s grand field blends from Geyserville and Lytton Springs, and home to a number of small wineries that produce sumptuous, well balanced wines, rich in fruit, well judged in alcohol, and balanced to the point of elegance. Leading names are Nalle, Quivira, Pezzi King, Rafanelli and Yoakim Bridge.

Zinfandel tends not to be a ‘collector’s wine’ because it doesn’t age well. As Joel Peterson points out, most wines are destined for early consumption. He has, however, encountered some remarkable old Zins; wines that with age lose their vibrant fruitiness and gain spicy, leafy qualities. Dan Cederquist says it’s acidity rather than tannin that keeps the wine going, although it can lose its fruit. Paul Draper finds his wines are best at five to eight years old, then go into a shell for 10 years, sometimes emerging as distinguished old bottles. But keeping Zinfandel for more than 10 years is risky. Napa Valley producer Peter Franus believes that the burly high-alcohol wines lose their fruit rapidly. ‘My priority,’ he says, ‘is to make a wine that’s enjoyable young.’

Vintages are not an issue with Zinfandel. Certainly 1994, 1995, and possibly 1997 and 1999, are superb. 1998 remains controversial, having been rubbished by James Laube in The Wine Spectator but admired by Robert Parker. I have certainly encountered many delicious 1998s, not marked by the green tannins and high acidity noted by Laube. It is a year that discouraged big powerful wines – even Turley made Zins with some elegance.

Zinfandel should, above all, give pleasure. It’s not a prince like Cabernet, nor a French mistress like Pinot Noir. It’s Rubens, not Vermeer. A slight sluttishness is part of Zinfandel’s appeal, offering joyful fruitiness, a rousing warmth on the palate, lush texture and a long spicy finish. If it provides food for thought and meditation, as a great Ridge Geyserville can do, so much the better. But that’s not the essence of Zinfandel’s appeal, and that’s why the monumental, over-extracted, rasping wines from Turley and their imitators seem so anomalous.

Written by STEPHEN BROOK