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Zins: Sins, and a Few Wins
By Linda Murphy
Oct 16, 2007
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I've been thinking a lot about Zinfandel, and about how little of it I drink. 

I sample hundreds of Zins a year at tastings and competitions, and where I reside in Sonoma County, I'm surrounded by Zinfandel vines and the folks who turn the fruit into wine.  Yet I spit more Zin than I swallow.  I don't salivate, like I used to, at the thought of attending the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) tasting in San Francisco each January.  A decade ago, Zinfandel was my favorite red wine; today, I'm far more likely to reach for Pinot Noir, Syrah or perhaps a Sangiovese from Italy.

Have I grown weary of California Zinfandel's unabashed ripeness and exotic flavors, instead favoring less obvious wines with more nuance?  Has age affected my palate, making the bold no longer beautiful?  Does Zinfandel's plea for pairing with a hunk of grilled meat clash with my pescatarian palate, which has morphed from meat and potatoes to fish and vegetables?  Can I no longer handle the high alcohol levels of many of today's Zinfandels, some of which approach 17 percent?

A tasting hosted by the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley had me asking myself these questions and answering 'yes,' to all.  I've changed, obviously, and so has Zinfandel; as the majority of wines made from 'America's grape' grow bigger, sweeter and more alcoholic, my taste buds have moved in the opposite direction, toward dry, balanced, claret-style wines with moderate alcohols and plenty of acidity to refresh the palate.  They're an endangered species, unfortunately, so when it comes to choosing a bottle of wine for dinner, I've moved to other varietal hunting grounds. 

The Dry Creek Valley tasting, titled 'Expressing the Evolution of Style Through the Generations,' included old-school brands that emerged in the early 1970s, some that have debuted in the last five years, and a few in between.  No surprise, I preferred the bottlings from the geezers, the long-time producers who've managed to limit the alcohol content and residual sugar in their wines while maintaining Zinfandel's distinctive wild berry, bramble and black pepper character. 

For the most part, the young guns offered riper wines with higher alcohols, between 15% and 15.9%, with aromas of jam rather than fresh fruit, notes of melted chocolate rather than dusty cocoa, and a sweet, syrupy mouthfeel.  They're the sumo wrestlers of the wine world, massive, showy and just balanced enough to stay on the mat.  I can handle one glass of these wines, but rarely do I want a second. 

Thankfully, the Dry Creek Valley organizers didn't let any lipstick-wearing pigs into the tasting flights--wines so huge, pruney/raisiny and hot in the back of the throat that they're best suited for morning pancakes or with dessert.  They may be labeled Zinfandel, but they're closer to Port than table wine.  This style of Zin tends to come and go every 20 years or so, and when it's here, it has a huge following.  I'm so not in that crowd.

Instead, pour me a glass of Nalle Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, which won't wow in a field of bigger wines, yet is all about elegance and understatement, with bright red fruit, toasted brown spice and firm acidity.  The 2005 ($32), which Doug Nalle makes with his son, Andrew, has just 13.8% alcohol-2% less than the 2005 Rued Wines Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel also poured at the tasting.  Numbers don't always indicate discernible alcoholic impact in the mouth, but a 2% difference is significant in the way a wine will taste with food, and how much of it one can drink without keeling over. 

The Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs Vineyard wine (not labeled as Zinfandel, though the 2005 vintage could be, as it has 77% Zinfandel, 17% Petite Sirah and 6% Carignane) is one of my benchmark Dry Creek Zins: medium-full in body, packed with fresh-tasting black fruits and black pepper, pleasantly toasty and with ripe tannins.  The 2005 ($33) is balanced and sophisticated, with a reasonable alcohol content of 14.4%.  The 1996 Lytton Springs bottling also is at 14.4%, proving that not all producers are subject to alcohol creep. 

Tasting the 1997 and 2005 Dry Creek Vineyard Heritage Zinfandels (labeled as Sonoma County, yet with a strong Dry Creek Valley grape contribution) demonstrated how little things can change with a wine style and pricing.  Both are comprised of 85% Zinfandel, 15% Petite Sirah, and have blackberry, blueberry and raspberry flavors, with tangy acidity (though the 1997 shows secondary leather and tar notes); both have a label alcohol of 14.5%; and the 2005 is just a dollar more, $16, than the 1997 version was when it was released. 

Balance and consistency.  I like that, and it can also be found in the Zinfandels of longtime Dry Creek Valley producers A. Rafanelli and Seghesio.  Passalaqua and Dashe Cellars, among others, show signs of achieving such status, though they don't have track records yet.

Among the newer brands in the DCV tasting--Rued Wines, Mauritson Family Winery and Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery (the latter is not really new, but has made Zin only since 1997)--the wines showed a more 'contemporary' profile: full-bodied, with substantial alcohols (15.8-15.9%) and sweet, jammy fruit.  Mauritson's 2005 Cemetery Vineyard Zinfandel ($39) from the Rockpile sub-appellation was polished for its size, yet too port-like for my taste.  Mill Creek's 2005 DCV ($30) was bright and fresh-tasting, yet left a slight alcoholic prickle in my mouth.  Rued's 2005 DCV ($25) was the sweetest wine in the flight, viscous and weighty.

The reasons for the variances in Zinfandel styles are complex and many:

High temperatures mean more sugar development in the grapes and thus, more alcohol in the wines; vineyards planted in cooler areas tend to produce less alcohol.  Some winemakers leave fruit on the vine as long as possible, to develop intense, concentrated flavors, while others prefer less ripe grapes.  Newer vines tend to be prolific in their sugar output, while old Zinfandel vines are prone to virus and disease that can act as speed governors along the route to ripening.  Some trellis systems allow lots of sunlight on the clusters, hastening maturity; others support more leaves that shade the grapes from direct sun, slowing down ripening.  Some yeasts are more efficient than others at converting sugar to alcohol; what sugar isn't converted remains in the wine.  And many a winemaker adds water at the crusher to reduce sugars, and/or uses spinning cone and reverse osmosis technology to reduce alcohol.

Also, there is a fine line between perfectly ripe grapes and over-ripeness, particularly with Zinfandel.  Growers struggle to get it ripe, then seemingly overnight, sugars can soar, and it takes time to get the grapes harvested once that happens.  Clusters can contain a mix of ripe grapes, raisins and green berries, making the decision of when to pick a difficult one.  Some winemakers carefully sort out the green and raisined grapes, whereas others use the entire cluster. 

The beauty of all this is that Zinfandel, more than any other variety in California, can be made into a wide range of styles, from blush to port, and everything in between.  My wine-drinking train might be heading south, toward elegance, finesse and lower alcohols, yet those whose train barrels north, toward dense, powerful wines will enjoy their ride as much as I do mine. 

When it comes to Zinfandel, I need to keep reminding myself to drink Nalle, Ridge, Rafanelli and Seghesio.  I'll leave the big-boy Zins to those who are younger, heartier or more carnivorous than I am.