California Zinfandel has re-surfaced from the murky depths with a fresher face and greater poise. Time to look again at wines made with this heritage grape, says Carson Demmond.

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California Zinfandel lost almost an entire generation of drinkers who learned to associate it with excessive alcohol levels, glossy sweetness, and prune-like flavours.

But those who came of age before the new millennium remember a different Zin – one that represented the perfect gateway wine.

Its forward profile, effusive fruit, and peppery spice made it easy to understand and even easier to drink, and its price point made it a more accessible alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon.

That earlier style seems much more fitting for wine made from some of the country’s oldest heritage vines.

And a few dynamic producers have now taken up its case, staging a comeback for the much-maligned grape.

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Most winemakers trace the shift towards the ever-bigger styles of Zinfandel to the 1997 vintage.

‘There was an abundant crop, and that fruit was coming in one and two weeks late with very high levels of sugar,’ said Eric Baugher, winemaker for Ridge Vineyards’ Monte Bello estate.

‘When those wines made their way into the world, they got huge ratings for that opulence.’

Ridge is one of a handful of wineries that never erred from the restrained style, which has made it one of California’s greatest champions of terroir expression.

Ridge, East Bench, Zinfandel

East Bench was the first of Ridge’s estate wines to be labelled as coming from organically grown grapes. Credit: Ridge Vineyards.

‘Once you get above 15 percent alcohol, you completely erase your terroir,’ said Baugher. ‘You might make a good Zin, but it will taste the same as everyone else’s.’

Morgan Twain-Peterson, the 35-year-old vintner-owner of Bedrock Wine Co., similarly advocates for site-expressiveness through earlier pick times.

Although his project’s primary focus has been heirloom field blends, he became convinced of Zinfandel’s potential for a more digeste style in 2009, when he found Monte Rosso –a site on the Sonoma side of Mount Veeder planted almost entirely to the variety.

Bedrock Wine Co, zinfandel

‘It’s an amazing old vineyard planted in the 1880s on red volcanic soil that produces this high acid, perfumed, mountain fruit,’ he said. ‘I immediately knew it was going to make a wine that I liked.’

At between 14 and 14.5 percent alcohol, Twain-Peterson’s Zins are by no means shy, but they completely reject the technique of picking at 28 Brix or more and watering back that had been de rigueur in the state for much of the last two decades.

‘I get notes from people who say these taste like the bottles they used to drink in the ‘80s and ‘90s when they first started loving wine. What can be more rewarding than that?’

It was largely because of his love for Zinfandel that Chris Brockway first moved to California to be a winemaker.

‘I was a little shocked when I got here, because the wines were so dark and porty,’ he said. ‘It was completely contradictory to what I remembered.’

California Zinfandel grapes

California Zinfandel clusters hand on the vines. Credit: Wine Institute of California.

The inclination to let Zinfandel hang longer, Brockway admits, is due to the variety’s notoriously uneven ripening.

But, he found two vineyards that lend themselves to a brighter expression – Arrowhead Mountain in Sonoma Valley and Buck Hill near Santa Rosa, a stone’s throw from Chalk Hill.

‘I pick two to three weeks earlier than would be standard,’ he said. ‘But, these sites taste good picked early, whereas fruit from Lodi might come across as green.’

His Vine Starr Zinfandel, under the Broc Cellars label, is lithe and fresh, its strawberry and black tea aromas harkening back to the Zins of a bygone era, with a crunchy, whole-cluster-like quality, despite the grapes being completely destemmed.

Old vine Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley, california

Old vine Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley. Credit: Aurora Photos / Alamy

Seeing the favorable market response for wines such as Broc Cellars’ and Bedrock’s has led other winemakers to pick earlier than they have in previous vintages.

‘I guess we took the fear element away from it,’ said Twain-Peterson. ‘Acidity was considered a pejorative when it came to Zinfandel, and that’s not the case anymore.’

Progressive restaurants in San Francisco are slowly stocking Zinfandel again, relieved to have found styles that won’t overwhelm their food.

And young winemakers have started seeking out old Zinfandel vines.

‘It started with Carignan and Mourvèdre, but more and more, they’re dabbling in Zin,’ said Twain-Peterson.

‘In 10 years’ time, we’re going to see even more compelling wines being produced.’

Zinfandel wines to seek out

Prices sourced via Wine-Searcher

1. Broc Cellars, ‘Vine Starr’ Zinfandel 2014 from Sonoma County

The 2015 vintage is available now in the U.S. but won’t reach the UK for another few weeks.

A racy style of Zinfandel blended from two vineyards in Sonoma County from vintner Chris Brockway.

Buy it here:

2. Dashe Cellars, ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ Zinfandel 2014, McFadden Farm, Potter Valley

An aromatic and fruit-forward Zinfandel, made in a Beaujolais-style, from Michael and Anne Dashe.

Buy it here:

3. Bedrock Wine Co, ‘Old Vines’ Zinfandel 2014, Sonoma Valley

A spice-laced blend of Zinfandels from 80-plus-year-old vines with a balance of Carignan, Mourvèdre, Grenache, and intermixed whites.

Buy it here:

4. Precedent, ‘Evangelho Vineyard’ Zinfandel 2013, Contra Costa County

A bright, fine-grained expression from own-rooted vines on sandy soil.

Buy it here: 

*2015 vintage **2014 vintage

5. Fog Monster, ‘Bedrock Red’ 2013, Sonoma County

A juicy, mostly whole-cluster Zinfandel-based blend from Morgan Twain-Peterson’s Bedrock vineyard, as interpreted by Andrea and Chris Mullineaux.

Contact winery for availability

More Zinfandel, including UK availability: