Thursday, April 29, 2010

Zinfandel, A Wine In Need Of TLC

As snapshots go, this one was taken with a camera with a rather narrow field of vision, not a wide-angle lens. Nonetheless, it could say something of the state of zinfandel in California these days, and the picture isn't particularly encouraging to those of us who are especially fond of the varietal.

Today, our panel at the West Coast Wine Competition in Rohnert Park considered two classes, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, both priced up to $20. Of the 44 cabernet sauvignons we tasted, seven got gold medals, a fairly high return. We were especially gratified that so many of the wines showed clearly that vintners truly appreciate the grape's inherent potential and are eager to wring as much natural personality as they can from it, without overlaying it with too much oak, sugar, tannin and alcohol.

The opposite was the case with the 51 zinfandels we weighed, only three of which were awarded gold medals. As a whole, the group was obese with sugar, alcohol, tannin and oak. "Clumsy" and "awkward" appeared in my notes much more often than usual for any varietal or style. I don't think I jotted down "charming" once, an attribute I've come to associate with zinfandel at its freshest, clearest and most balanced. Too often, grapes tasted as if they were left hanging on the vine well beyond when they should have been picked, yielding flavors tired and raisiny. The vanillin and smokiness of oak barrels often was the first smell to register in the nose, not the sunshine and freshness of raspberries and blackberries. Several were so offensively stinky that my only note was the dreaded "DPIM" - "don't put in mouth."

As I left the conference center where the competition is being held I had to wonder whether zinfandel's discouraging showing was due to a poor vintage - most were from 2008 - or whether vintners are taking the varietal for granted, assuming consumers never will regard it with the same esteem given cabernet sauvignon, and thus aren't giving it the same tender loving care. If that's the case, who can fault consumers for not thinking as highly of zinfandel as they do cabernet sauvignon?


  1. I agree with you, Mike. Zin too often is over the top, perhaps because many producers see it as their high-octane party wine. My feeling on picking late in the season is that if the grapes have gone too much to raisin, then why bother putting a varietal name on the label? You could take any grape - perhaps even a Chardonnay - let it hang until there are no more leaves and you've got a raisin monolithe in the glass. What's the point in that?

  2. Zinfandel currently lacks nuance and complexity because the people growing it are allowing the fruit to sit and shrivel (not calling out the winemakers for it) and the winemakers take these shriveled raisins and engineers a mammoth of a wine that is neither fun to consume nor is it affable at the dinner table, unless you're serving wild boar of short ribs.

    No one likes to drink these viscously sweet sledgehammers. period. I love cool climate Zin that is balanced. It is possible to make an elegant zin that has little to NO NEW OAK, have it age gracefully for a decade and pair with nightly dinner. It is possible because we are doing it. Anyone who says you can't make layered, sophisticated zin under 14% alcohol should come by and taste. I am a zin guy and proud of it... Not due to the contemporary rep zin has but rather due to its potential as being California's own wine nobility.

    The Zinfandel variatel deserves better than the crap that's being made today.

    Until then.

  3. I'd recommend trying Cline Cellars Ancient Vines and just regular old California bottling of Zinfandel. I've tried a lot of zins, and honestly I'm not sure why, but Cline's zins don't seem to have that raisiny, pruny flavor and smell that some zins do. I think they use oak, but it's not too heavy, better balanced than most of the others I've tried lately.

  4. The 2007 Easton Zinfandel from Amador County is one of the best Zins I've come across in some time.