Tasting Recap: California Zin

Zinfandel is by nature a flamboyant wine, loved for its bold, dark fruits, high-octane nature, and juicy, low-tannin richness. What is often misunderstood is the potential this grape has to produce wines that fit outside this generic perception. On the vine, Zinfandel produces uneven bunches, and can be a bit tough to vinify, yet when produced with great care and solid winemaking, Zin can be something quite special. This past week tasters sampled five California bottlings and one from Puglia Italy for a bit of contrast. With a varietal tasting it can be difficult to represent every region or style of winemaking the varietal is known for, but we do our best to offer a fair representation of what can be both typical and unique to a grape. We first poured a Primitivo (Italy) as an Old World option before jumping into a baseline $10 option and slowly moving up in quality and price all the while featuring four main regions of California Zinfandel production. From an expected bombastic, hedonistic selection to a surprisingly herbal / funkier selection and everything in between, these Zins showcased just how wide a range of wines the grape has to offer.

Layer Cake 2010 Primitivo, Puglia Italy

Sourced from the Manduria region of Puglia, this wine was created to reflect exactly what a Primitivo should be. This region is incredibly hot, though geographically allows for a greater maritime influence as it is such a thin peninsula (the heel of the boot, if you will). Coastal breezes help to preserve acidity and retain a more food-friendly, old world alcohol of just 13.5%. Incredible considering most wines from this region are minimum 14%, yet it still offers ripe purple fruits, a sense of mineral and a nice brambly character to add complexity. Primitivo is a classic pair for meaty dishes with robust flavors, and the structure of this wine allows for greater versatility as the low alcohol supports a little heat to the dish, and will easily please drinkers both new and old world alike. A tasting favorite.

Double Decker 2010 Zinfandel, California

The Double Decker line is a second label for Wente Vineyards, using sourced fruit to create value-driven wines of stellar quality. When searching for these $10 wines, we don’t necessarily look for complexity, but rather a sense of typicity to the grape and where it is being produced. This wine delivers on both accounts. Black fruits jump from the nose with hints of vanilla and spice to offer a touch of depth as a creamy palate full of dark fruits creates an easy drinking Zinfandel. This producer uses a blend of French, American and Eastern European oak to soften the mouthfeel and support a lusher palate, a nice addition to a wine at this price. This is a wine that despite the vintage, strives to be consistent from year to year, and the flexibility of sourced fruit allows perfectly for this. An incredible value for the price.

Foxglove 2009 Zinfandel, Paso Robles

This was perhaps the most polarizing wine of the tasting as it defied most of the perceptions tasters had of this varietal and region. Paso Robles traditionally produces wines that are weightier, robust and higher alcohol, though this is the odd man out. With a feral, herbal nose and slightly brighter acidity, dark red and purple fruits all the while retaining a soft palate with hints of vanilla to balance out a little funk, this wine was an incredible juxtaposition to the wines to come, This winery utilizes oak staves in a stainless fermentation and aging to bring elements of oak without the oxidative quality of a full barrel. Obvious attention to detail and clever wine making have created this tasty Zinfandel that may not please all Zin drinkers, but will certainly wow those who think Zin is always a sugary fruit bomb. This is a Zin that offers a refreshing portrayal of this grape for those that don’t generally consider Zin a favorite grape.

Ridge 2010 Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley

Ridge is one of California’s most highly regarded Zin producers, with winemaker Paul Draper creating some of Zinfandels most elegant and renowned expressions. When it comes to a sense of place, Ridge has got it made, and for the past thirty some years, Lytton Springs and their Geyserville bottlings have shown how even with New World fruit, you can have a sense of terroir and longevity to wine. This is a blend of primarily Zinfandel, with Petite Sirah, Carignane and Mataro (Mourvedre) to flesh it out, and brings figs and dark black fruit, notes of fresh herbs and earthy minerality together in the most elegant and complex wine of the tasting. This bottle is quite young, though showed extremely well at the tastings but also showed just how well it can age for years to come. This wine is in limited allocation, so if you have enjoyed Ridge wines before or this will be your first, we suggest picking some up soon as it won’t be around in the shop much longer.

Earthquake 2010 Zinfandel, Lodi

Lodi is one of California’s main regions for bulk wine production, as its hot and dry climate and fertile soil allow for quite large yields and consistent production. Yet, by keeping yields low and taking advantage of some of the older vines in the region, you can make a wine with a good bit of interest, and Michael David is one such producer. More well-known for his “7 Deadly Zins”, we vastly prefer his higher end Earthquake line. For this bombastic, concentrated and high alcohol style of Zin, this is a perfect and well-made libation. Inky black fruit, mocha and vanilla bean combine with a smooth but rich palate in this indulgent wine. With the brazen winter winds in the near distance, this is the wine for cold nights by the fire and to accompany rich, hearty roasts. (We also recommend his Petite Petit blend for.)

Turley 2010 Cedarman Vineyard Zinfandel, Howell Mountain

Famed winemaker Helen Turley may be a bit rough around the edges (and no longer with this winery) but her full-force style of winemaking perseveres in the winery’s lineup of small-production single-vineyard Zins. Sourced from the higher elevations of Napa’s Howell Mountain, this Zinfandel is akin to the hedonistic, massive, high alcohol style of Zin production, yet offers an incredible structure. Well-preserved acidity, use of smaller proportions of new oak and layers of purple and black fruit, brown spice and vanilla, and brambly, earthy foundations and a rich, yet balanced palate all unite in a fantastic and heralded offering. As this is a single-vineyard wine, we do find a great sense of place, yet still with Turley’s brooding and dense style. A perfect way to end the array of Zins sampled, and a crowd favorite. And as of this posting, only 3 bottles remain for the year (did we mention they’re small production?)

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