The Elusive Chameleon (Zinfandel)

#175 – June 2, 2011

As my United States-based subscribers just celebrated the semi-official launch of summer this past Memorial Day, the cooperative warm weather with which we have been blessed ensured that grills up and down America were dusted off for some serious carnivorous activity. For general suggestions on good wine pairings with all that barbequed goodness, check out my Wine & Grilling pairing newsletter from last year (this year’s edition should be distributed around the Fourth of July).

As you will see from that newsletter, Zinfandel is one of the wine varietals that pairs really well with grilled meats and some versions of it make for great barbeque wines (although the main reason it gets trotted out every July 4th as a match to grilling is that its title as America’s wine makes it the right pick for that patriotic day (ironically, it has been proven that Zinfandel actually originated in Croatia). Now, if this newsletter was going to be read by the uninitiated masses, this would be the place for a multitude of jokes about White Zinfandel and its designation as alcoholic fruit juice, the enormous quantities of said fruit juice consumed by the uneducated hordes and the negative impact its production has had on the culture of wine appreciation. However, as the readers of this newsletter are of a higher cultural leaning and whose preferences run towards a gentle Pinot Noir or a smoky Syrah rather than sugary bubble-gum juice, I can tell you that the abomination known worldwide as White Zinfandel actually served a very important part in preserving those glorious old-vine Zinfandel vines from which we derive so much pleasure these days during the decades in which America’s wine appreciation was basically non-existent. Anytime you find yourself enjoying the depth and complexity of a well-made old-vine Zinfandel, remember to saw a silent thank you to Sutter Vineyards, perpetuators of the White Zinfandel which kept those Zin vines from being ripped up as true Zinfandel fell from grace.

While in today’s day and age, wine making ability and technology allows the winemaker to create vastly differing wines from the same grape starting with the care of grapes in the vineyard, through timing the harvest all the way to amount of time the wine spends in oak, Zinfandel stands out in this regard with its ability to provide very different wines as a result of such manipulation from big powerful oak bombs to more restrained and elegant examples of terroir (in addition to coolers of White Zinfandel). However, Zinfandel is most widely known as a big wine with typically high alcohol content (sometimes reaching 16%, with over 14% almost a certainty, a result of the naturally high sugar content), with loads of dark ripe fruit, low tannins and a healthy dose of spice.

In my opinion, one of the reasons that Zinfandel has fallen from favor is a result of the worldwide tread shying away from big, powerful and extracted fruit loaded wines to wines that show more elegance and restraint. However, Zinfandel can very much be utilized to create such wines especially given the fact that its thin skin mandates more Pinot Noir-like treatment than the Cabernet one to which it is usually subjected. The thin skin and low tannins tends to ensure Zins are good for early drinking with relatively low cellarability, although the more premium versions tend to age for 3-7 years. Another major complaint with Zinfandel is their high-alcohol content a result of the grapes naturally high sugar content. Many winemakers will tell you that it’s a heck of a lot easier to make a 17% great Zin than a 13.5% one. In fact, for years, Zinfandel’s unofficial slogan was “no wimpy wines”, coined by Ravenswood, one of the country premier Zinfandel producers. Giving the high sugar content, the timing of picking is crucial for the Zinfandel grape and over-oaking usually results in flavors more akin to a malted than the delightful brambly fruit we are looking for.

Listed below are some notes for some top-notch Zins currently available on the Market. While the kosher versions don’t provide the same level of diversity across the varietal (and White Zinfandel is obviously not included as the list only includes wines), there are a few different types of Zinfandel that showcase the effect that wine making, terroir, oak and other influences can have on the varietal.

Shabbat Shalom

Binyamina, Reserve, Zinfandel, 2007: This is a big Zinfandel that spent 15 months in both French and American oak, while managing to retain a relatively low (for Zinfandel, which tends to be higher in alcohol) 14% alcohol level and staying true to the varietal. Typical notes of black pepper and leather match up with ripe raspberries and strawberries. Hints of bittersweet chocolate and mint on a medium finish round out this powerful wine. I enjoyed the wine more on its own than as a match to food.

Baron Herzog, Old Vine Zinfandel, 2006: A lighter Zinfandel than its more exclusive big brother mentioned below, this wine is an easy-drinking wine that matches well with a large variety of dishes, and is well priced to boot. Medium-bodied and well structure, whose tannins well integrated with bold red fruit flavors tinged with earthiness, black cracked pepper and a medium pleasantly rough finish.

Herzog, Zinfandel, Special Reserve, Lodi, 2006: A complex, medium-to full bodied wine with layers of fruit, matched well by an elegant structure and muscular tannins that don’t overpower the aromas and flavors. The wood that was somewhat overbearing a year ago has settled down nicely and serves as a welcome contrast to the raspberries, ripe plums, currants and spices. A long, delicious finish rounds out this treat. Somewhat expensive but worth it with plenty of cellaring time ahead of it.

Dalton, Zinfandel, 2006: The lowest tiered wine from this winery manages to produce a robust, intriguing and full-bodied well integrated wine, truly the mark of a top notch winery. Loads of fruit, including cherries, plums, currants and raspberries on a slightly sweet background but nicely balanced with some spices. The wine serves up plenty of the more traditional Zin notes including pepper, spice, rich black forest fruit and freshly paved road. Blended with a smidgen of Merlot, this wine is drinking beautifully now and will continue to cellar for another couple of years. Well worth seeking out and a YH Best Buy.

Hagafen, Prix Reserve, Moscowite Ranch- Block 61, Zinfandel, 2006: While the Dalton listed below is probably my current favorite Zinfandel, it beats the Hagafen primarily due to it cost-effectiveness. This dark and brooding treasure is filled with loads of gooseberries, blackberries, plums, cherries, cigars and fine bittersweet chocolate. A spicy wine with a dark chocolate finish that is bursting with flavor from start to long delicious finish.