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Once Again, Zinfandel
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
May 1, 2012
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A. Rafanelli, Dry Creek Valley (California) Zinfandel, 2009 (about $50):  Maybe my taste in wine is revolving full circle, from loving Zinfandel in the 1980s and early 1990s, to abandoning it for its excessive (to my mind) opulence, to appreciating it for what it is.  Whatever forces were in place, I thoroughly enjoyed my recent blind tasting of six Zinfandels from Dry Creek Valley.  The alcohol levels were mainly in the 15-point-something range, the oak was evident in many a wine, and sweetness was a given -- all characteristics I normally dislike -- and yet the wines had a compelling generosity of fruit that was undeniable.

I can’t know how much of the quality and character of the wines was due to the terroir of Dry Creek Valley, but all of the wines did have that origin in common. Several of them also came from small, family-owned wineries that have been making wine in that area for generations.  No doubt many of the wines included grapes from very old vines, because Dry Creek Valley boasts many old Zinfandel vineyards.  In any case, with its warm, dry days and cool nights, as well as its poor, well-drained soils, Dry Creek Valley is widely considered a blessed terroir for Zinfandel.

In the end, my top wine was no surprise:  A. Rafanelli has been one of my favorite producers of Zinfandel since the days when I was crazy about Zinfandel.  I have always found Rafanelli Zins to be moderate in weight and ripeness -- not so lean as what we used to call “claret-style” Zins, but far less excessive in alcohol and jammy fruit than many other Zinfandels.  They tend to take the fruit and spice of Zinfandel just to the point that it is unmistakable, without losing freshness and focus.

The 2009 Rafanelli Zin has an aroma that suggests tart red berries as well as black berries, along with dark chocolate and delicate fresh herbs.  In your mouth, the wine’s attack is sweet, soft and rich but the taste immediately goes dryer and leaner as the wine’s very fine tannin and especially its acidity begins to balance the perception of sweet fruit.  Delicious fruit flavors persist on the finish.  Altogether, the impression is one of richness and ripe fruit flavor with plenty of internal energy -- a wine that’s round but not hollow.  For a big wine, it is very harmonious, even graceful.

For a BYO wine dinner last Christmastime, I dug a 1991 Rafanelli Zin out of my cellar, and it was one of the most impressive wines on a night of many wines.  After tasting this 2009, I opened another old Rafanelli, a 1990, for an on-the-spot comparison.  The aromas of the 1990 are evolved at this point, suggesting tobacco and prune as well as dark chocolate.  In the mouth, the wine is still very fruity (although it’s a more subdued fruitiness at this point), still vibrant with acidity, and soft and rich in texture.  The main indication of its age -- and its era -- is that its enduring acidity includes some volatile acidity or “VA,” a trait common in old-style wines in many parts of the world.  (Some experts consider noticeable VA to be a flaw, but others see it as a character that can lift the flavors of the wine.)  In the 2009, I find no VA, but certainly enough acidity to lift and delineate the wine’s rich flavors.  The 1990 has 14.2 percent alcohol, while the 2009 has 14.9 percent, a truly minimal increase, considering how the culture of ripeness has evolved in California.

Based on my experience, I believe that the 2009 Rafanelli Zin is a twenty-year wine, but it is also eminently enjoyable right now.  Rafanelli sells its wines only at its winery, in person and by phone.  (The winery is currently listing the 2010 Zinfandel.)

91 Points