Zinfandel is considered to be America’s red grape, although its origin is hardly American. Thanks to the advent of DNA grape analysis, zinfandel’s origin was first traced to the grape variety primitive grown in southern Italy and then more recently to the Adriatic region. None of this really should come as a surprise because the New World countries depended on Europe for agricultural products. Zinfandel didn’t just happen – it came from somewhere else.
Nonetheless, as the all-American holiday Thanksgiving approaches and colder temperatures set in, zinfandel becomes a popular choice for wine enthusiasts.
Popular among Italian immigrants who came to California to make wine, zinfandel would have faded after Prohibition if it were not for blush wines made from zinfandel. When these faddish sugar bombs became popular, winemakers renewed their interest in the grape variety. At one time, white zinfandel was outselling red zinfandel six-fold. Today, that gap has narrowed dramatically and red zinfandels have developed a cult following.
Zinfandel is often the base wine in California blends, a hot market nowadays. Many people don’t realize that Prisoner, for instance, is zinfandel based. And its popularity has spawned an amazing number of copycats.
We admire the California producers – Turley, Biale, Renwood, Marietta, Cline, Dry Creek Vineyards, Edmeades -- who have made zinfandel their priority. Many of the best zinfandels come from gnarly, phylloxera-resistant vineyards as old as 35 years.
Much of California’s lucrative zinfandel market is centered in Sonoma County and Lodi where warmer temperatures produce ripe grapes. You don’t see the grape farmed in northern climates, such as the Pacific Northwest. Riper grapes mean more sugar; more sugar means more alcohol.
Most zinfandels boast an alcohol content of 16 percent or more. A few glasses of zinfandel will make you light-headed faster than if you consume the same amount of, say, chardonnay. Beware!
Zinfandel flavors can be very ripe and grapey, but many California winemakers today are making more balanced zinfandels with tannins and acidity to offset the ripe fruit flavors. These are great wines to serve with ribs, hamburgers, and pizza. Anything with a sweet sauce will pair nicely with zinfandel.
Here are a few zinfandels we recently enjoyed:
Shooting Star Lake County Zinfandel 2017 ($15). This is a value-priced zinfandel with easy, ripe dark berry flavors and hints of spice and chocolate. Medium in body, it begs for a second glass.
The Federalist Dry Creek Zinfandel 2016 ($18). This producer makes several zinfandels in different appellations, but we best enjoyed this heady monster from Dry Creek Valley. Six blocks of grapes were fermented separately, then aged for 16 months in oak. Cherry aromas with a hint of spice are followed by bright berry flavors and hints of spice and cocoa.
Mettler Family Vineyards Epicenter Old Vine Zinfandel 2017 ($25). Tapping into grapes from the Lodi appellation, this historic property has a big and delicious zinfandel with moderate oak influence. Plum and ripe blackberry flavors with firm tannins and hints of anise, toasted oak, vanilla and tobacco.
Edmeades Mendocino Zinfandel 2016 ($20). Winemaker David Ready Jr. adds petite sirah and syrah to make a splashy zinfandel from California’s northern climes. Luscious blackberry and red currant flavors with a hint of cloves.
Cline Ancient Vines Contra Costa Zinfandel 2017 ($20). The Cline family has amassed an impressive collection of 100-year-old vineyards that have produced fruit for some of the best and biggest zinfandels in California. The 2017 has ripe red fruit character with a good dose of spice and coffee.
Saldo California Zinfandel 2017 ($32). Produced by the wildly popular Prisoner Wine Co., this zinfandel is blended with syrah and petite sirah to create a delicious and juicy wine with classic blackberry and cherry flavors with a hint of chocolate.
Dutcher Crossing Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Zinfandel 2016 ($37). We liked this firm but reasonably complex zinfandel from the Russian River Valley. Generous raspberry and black cherry aromas mingle with blackberry and cherry flavors with oak-inspired hints of spice and vanilla. Excellent finish.
Bear Flag Zinfandel 2016 ($30). Good structure and full body. Juicy blueberry and blackberry fruit with hints of spice and vanilla. Blended with petite sirah and teroldego grapes. Full-bodied, it would be great with a meat-based stew.
The Seven Deadly Zins Lodi 2016 ($20). Made by Michael David, this jammy and full-bodied zinfandel uses old-vine grapes from Lodi. Blackberry and dark cherry flavors with oak-driven layers of spice, vanilla and chocolate.
Writer’s Block Lake County Zinfandel 2016 ($18). Ripe black cherry and blackberry flavors with soft mouthfeel and hints of tea.
We recently met with Jessica Chivers-Wilson of Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, Va., to taste their new current releases.
Although primarily known for their red wines. we enjoyed the Boxwood Estate Sauvignon Blanc Middleburg Virginia 2108 ($20). Blended with 18 percent of the rare sauvignon gris grape, this interesting Bordeaux blend presented bright citrus fruit, a streak of minerals and an elegant creamy finish.
We tasted three red Bordeaux-like blends that impressed us with their quality. The Boxwood Estate Trellis Middleburg Virginia 2016 ($23) is a cabernet-franc-dominated blend with 21 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent petite verdot, and 10 percent merlot. Aged in used French oak barrels, this wine displayed bright fruit with wild cherry and pomegranate notes, and a hint of oak.
A bit mellower was the Boxwood Estate Topiary Middleburg Virginia 2106 ($30) with its blend of merlot, cabernet franc and petite verdot. Nice cherry notes a hint of oak and soft tannins make this wine drinkable now.
We especially enjoyed the Boxwood Estate Red Reserve 2015 ($45) 10th anniversary vintage, which displayed notes of luscious cherry chocolate soft tannins and a mild oak frame. It is 48 percent cabernet franc, 25 percent merlot, 22 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent petite verdot. This wine should age well for at least several years.
Talo Primitivo Di Manduria San Marzano 2017 ($18). This is a terrific value wine from the Puglia region of Italy. Bright berry and black cherry fruit expression in a very deep and rich accessible package. Try with red meats and red-sauced pasta dishes
Capensis Chardonnay Western Cape South Africa 2015 ($80). This is only the third vintage of this stellar chardonnay. Sourced from four vineyards, these bottles present a luscious white wine made entirely from chardonnay grapes aged in French oak for 10 months. Very ripe fruit with lemon curd notes and bright acidity define this chardonnay.
Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have been writing a weekly wine column for more than 30 years. Visit moreaboutwine.com to read more.