Original Zin

  • Monday 1 September 2003

Zinfandel may not have been born in the USA, but, says JEFF COX, it's become a much-loved Californian classic with a very American stamp

Zinfandel may not have been born in the USA, but, says JEFF COX, it's become a much-loved Californian classic with a very American stamp

Why do Americans love their Zinfandel so? This is, in part, a loaded question, since Zinfandel is made in every conceivable style: from light blush to wine so dark and syrupy you could pour it on your pancakes. Not only that, but it changes character significantly depending on whereabouts in California it's grown. But classic Zinfandel – spicy, peppery, brambly-briary and fruity – is all the rage in the States right now. Its charm is in its rustic exuberance. It has soul. 'At harvest time,' says Tom Mackey, director of winemaking at St Francis Winery in Sonoma County, 'growers bring in the Cabernet in new trucks and ride fancy cars. The Zinfandel arrives in a motley assortment of old 1940s and 1950s-era vehicles, and the growers are just as earthy and uncomplicated. That only happens with Zinfandel.'

FIELD WORK

He might have added that many of the best Zinfandel vineyards are as unique and old-fashioned as the trucks and the growers. These historic estates are scattered everywhere in the north coast counties – gnarly, head-trained vines without trellising that have seen a hundred harvests come and go; vines planted seven feet apart in rows seven feet apart so a horse-drawn cultivator could pass through both ways. The vines are mostly Zinfandel, but the immigrant Italians who planted them knew how to make a field blend; consequently, they interspersed the Zin with a few vines of other grapes: Carignan, Petite Sirah, Mataro (the old Italian name for Mourvedre), Alicante Bouschet and even a few vines of white grapes like Golden Chasselas.

While Zinfandel can be quite good, even noble, on its own, it's the field blends that show the most character and create the most excitement on the palate. But these old-vine vineyards, now so treasured, were once almost lost forever. The ancient vines were producing half the amount of conservatively cropped younger vineyards – wine which was, in turn, sold for half the price of Cabernet. Winemakers treated Zin as second-rate, letting it hang until fermenters became available, instead of picking it at its peak and assigning it to old barrels. Buyers drifted over to Cabernet's higher quality and stylistic consistency, and farmers started ripping out the old vines as unprofitable.

A VARIETY REBORN

Then, in the 1970s, Sutter Home sallied forth with a blush version of the wine, a cheap, sugary drink which became the entry-level wine for a younger generation of Americans. White Zin, made from the red Zin grapes but without using the skin, was an instant hit. Farmers stopped ripping, and the old vineyards were saved. Today, Zinfandel sells for about $2,400 a tonne, and Cabernet Sauvignon for $2,600. A total of four million cases of Zin were sold in 2002, a quarter of which were wines priced at the high end of $15 to $30 a bottle. According to Michelle Rowell, senior marketing consultant with Motto, Kryla and Fisher, a wine business advisory firm in St Helena, there has been solid growth in sales of high-end Zinfandels for the past five years. 'This means that Zin aficionados will spend, so we think we'll see continued strong growth in this segment,' she says. Meanwhile, there's been a recent decline in sales of Zinfandels priced below $15. 'Those young folks who cut their teeth on sweet, pink white Zin have discovered the real stuff.'

But what is the 'real stuff'? The original European home of Zinfandel has long been debated. Then, in the summer of 2002, the University of California, using DNA-matching techniques, announced that the grape we call Zinfandel, and the Italians call Primitivo, are both Crljenak Kastelanski.

The vine comes from the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. In a fabulous stroke of luck, Croatian researchers found 20 vines of this grape, despite the fact that it is almost extinct in its homeland today. We don't know what Crljenak Kastelanski does in Croatia, but in California it has become an amazingly open, fruity, faceted and noble grape – when planted in the right places.

Although lack of respect for the variety led many producers in the early 1980s to make massive, over-ripe, alcoholic and raisiny Zinfandels – certainly not fit for drinking with dinner and possibly only fit as a cheap substitute for port – some producers had been making Zin with restraint and regard for the nobility of the grape for years.

Joseph Swan Vineyards, under the hand of Joe Swan and then his son-in-law Rod Berglund, has been making beautifully crafted wines from old-vines since Swan's first attempt in 1968. 'Zins are wonderful because they don't require years of age to be good or a degree in wine appreciation to be understood,' Berglund says. Dave Stare at Dry Creek Vineyards was another one of the first in California's modern viticultural era to take Zin seriously, releasing an old-vine Zin in 1973. That programme has continued into today's old-vine, vineyard-designated wines. Then, from the early 1980s to his current 2000 bottling of Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood has shown that Napa Valley old-vine Zin can rival any in the state for sheer quality.

Leading the charge

Meanwhile, Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards seeks out superb old vineyards in many places around California and creates a line of Zins that amount to a short course in their terroirs; Dave Rafanelli of A Rafanelli Winery has been crafting exquisite Zins from the Dry Creek Valley – one of the premier sites for Zinfandel in California – for 20 years; and Doug Nalle, also in Dry Creek, has become known for his pure, elegant Zins matured in expensive French oak. These winemakers, among others, have led the current trend toward Zinfandels with breeding and balance rather than sheer muscle.

But for all their diversity, one thing shared by the majority of Zinfandel wines and winemakers is their recent vintages. 1999 was a stand-out, 2000 was okay, 2001 was very good, and 2002 is truly exceptional. While winemakers always say that about their current vintage, this time – from what I've tasted from barrel – they could just be right.

Jeff Cox is contributing editor to The Wine News.

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