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Elaine Chukan Brown: In defence of Zinfandel

A celebration of Zinfandel and its potential as a fine wine of the future.

Foundational to the notion of terroir is the story of Burgundy. It is a relationship between Pinot Noir and the monks’ investment in defining place, identifying growing conditions in a complex tapestry of climat and cru that has inspired winemakers worldwide.

Countless vintners have sought to replicate its magic elsewhere, planting Pinot around the globe. With it has developed an assertion almost unquestioned – Pinot Noir is the grape most expressive of terroir. But in wines grown outside the Côte d’Or, we rarely find the magic of eastern France. If we can learn a lesson from Burgundy, it’s that the world’s great wines cannot be replicated by relocating their vines. The newer region must build its own defining relationship between the grapes best suited to its conditions and those who invest in them. Burgundy’s climate cannot be found in California; nor limestone with year-round rain.

In California, history has demonstrated no grape is better suited to the varied conditions of the state than Zinfandel. Its ability to adapt exceeds that of Pinot even. It matures successfully in every growing region, with vineyards dotting the landscape from its southern border to north of Mendocino, from the Pacific coast to the eastern foothills, the lower elevation river valleys to its mountain peaks.

Tasting through three examples from Turley’s 2019 vintage illustrates the variety’s diversity. DuPratt vineyard grows mere miles from the ocean at 450m on Mendocino Ridge, surrounded by redwoods. The wine smells of wildflowers and bramble with resinous forest and stony undertones. The tannin is corded but refined, like the texture of shantung silk, the acidity mouthwatering.

From the desert slopes of Howell Mountain at 790m on the eastern side of Napa Valley, the wine of Rattlesnake Ridge is inky and brooding with earthy notes of graphite, the tannin melting across the palate into a long, savoury finish.

From Amador County in the Sierra Foothills, home to the oldest vineyards in the state, Judge Bell grows around 450m in a rolling plateau near the Gold Rush town of Plymouth. The wine brings notes of orange zest, dried rose, crushed berries and a mix of fresh herbs. The tannin is fine-boned while abundant, the wine’s character more reminiscent of classic Barolo than the stereotype of high-octane Zin.

Classic wineries such as Turley, Ridge, Robert Biale, Frog’s Leap, Carlisle and Bedrock, as well as winemaker Joel Peterson, first through Ravenswood and now Once & Future, have invested decades in demonstrating the site-expressive power of Zinfandel. And the best can age. A quality Zin readily lasts 10 years. Exceptional sites can develop in bottle for decades, assisted by the elevated acidity natural to the variety.

The grape does have a troubled history. Producers who indulged in its potential for opulence created a perception of jammy fruit and alcohol, reaching as much as 16%. It was a style that peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s but generated a stereotype the variety still struggles with today.

Zinfandel and Pinot Noir have one thing in common. Picked overripe, they lose their terroir expression in favour of excess fruit mistaken as California sunshine. It is a fault of winemaking rather than variety or place. The grape most readily finds its balance at alcohol levels out of fashion in post-Parker wine culture. Even so, celebrated Zinfandels from Ridge, an icon of well-balanced wines, tend to be between 13.5%-15%.

Over the last 10 years, Zinfandel has gone through a market correction. Its least interesting vines have been pulled in favour of more lucrative varieties. Farming costs have driven out lower-end price points. Sites with a track record of quality remain. Classic producers have been joined by newer brands looking to capture the energy of California’s oldest vineyards with fresh enthusiasm.

The changes have driven an increase in quality single-vineyard wines. But unlike Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, prices for the best Zinfandels remain accessible. The result is a category of wine that, compared with other red varieties, delivers on quality while offering the opportunity to taste California terroir. Let’s celebrate a future of Zinfandel as fine wine.

What I’ve been drinking

Over dinner with friends, the Pierrick Bouley, Volnay 1er Cru Champans 2019 (£125.19 Latimer Vintners) was still young, yet the wine offered beautiful depth and potential with muscular tannin and pleasing finesse. It opened beautifully, delivering layered fruits, savoury and earthy notes, accents of cracked vanilla bean and spices. Pierrick took the family reins in 2014 and has continued to refine the farming and winemaking since. His reputation will only grow, and the wines no doubt become even more refined.

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