For some reason, I always associate zinfandel with autumn. It seems that as soon as the leaves start to turn and the first chill sets in, I get a craving for this rich red wine, usually high in alcohol content, with bold tastes of red fruit, chocolate, raspberries, and pepper. These characteristics make a good zinfandel the perfect accompaniment for a roasted leg of lamb or as the braising liquid for a hearty beef stew. (Obviously, I’m talking about real zinfandel and not the white impostor.)
So what makes a zinfandel good? First off, it should be full bodied with an alcohol content close to or above 13%. The nose should be rich with red fruit or berries, with undertones of spice or vanilla. On the palate, don’t look for finesse but rather bold assertiveness: its flavors should be well defined and accompanied by mild tannins. The flavors of a truly great zin will burst on the palate and not fade on the finish.
Finding an affordable zin isn’t too difficult these days. Indeed, given its jug wine roots, there are plenty of zins under $10 a bottle. (One of the best wines we tasted, Rosenblum Cellars Vintners Cuvee XII, goes for $8.99.) However, in this price range the trick is to separate the true champions of the full bodied zinfandel style from the lightweights. It becomes a little easier to find truly exceptional zins in the $10 to $20 range, where the reigning champ has to be Ridge, with its three great entries: Gyersville, Lytton Springs, and Dusi Ranch. Because these wines are so consistently good, they are in high demand among zin aficionados and seem to disappear as soon as they are released. Thus, they are not included in this feature. But don’t despair; Ridge is represented here by their less expensive and more widely available Sonoma zin.
Given that this is an election year, I wasn’t surprised when, at a recent dinner party, talk turned from wine to politics. One guest likened cabernet to Bob Dole: well aged, straightforward, and tannic; merlot to Bill Clinton: smooth and seductive, a real charmer and zinfandel to Ross Perot: assertive, peppery, and a bit zany. (When I queried about pinot noir, one burgundy lover, defending her passion, pronounced: None of the candidates comes even close.).
While Perot’s appeal may be limited, I think we can make a better case for zinfandel. The wines we list below range from $7.99 to $19.99 a bottle and should be available at most wine stores. In fact, you might buy one or two for election night and enjoy them (after you vote) as we did with a spit roasted leg of lamb.
Two tastings were held for this feature and each included at least seven bottles. At each tasting, we first sampled the wines without any food and then tasted them a second time with a simple, roasted leg of lamb to assess how well they stood up to food. We tasted the wines in pairs matched for price and style.
The top wines at each tasting more often than not turned out to be the most expensive. The first tasting had four outstanding wines that ranged in price from $11.99 to $17.99.
Lytton Springs Zinfandel Sonoma County 1992 ($17.99) was spectacular. This is a full bodied wine with an alcohol content of 14.9% It has a deep purple color and long, long legs that elicited the following comment from one taster: Gams we call them. There are black cherries on the nose. The wine is silky on entry and delivers rich jammy flavors. This is a textbook zin and is the perfect wine to serve with the cheese course at the end of dinner.
Coturri Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Chauvet Vineyard 1994 ($15.99)was also impressive despite an off-putting nose that evoked cooked cabbage. But once you get passed the nose, you’re in for a treat. This wine has a high alcohol content of 15.0% and is full bodied. Jammy, almost unctuous, it delivers ripe raspberry flavors. The wine is still quite young, which might account for its somewhat harsh finish. (I’d give this wine a couple of years and suggest decanting it before serving.) Despite its flaws, which might be attributable to the wine being relatively young, it was the perfect accompaniment to the roasted lamb.
Newlan Zinfandel Napa Valley 1993 ($16.99) was another winner. Deep purple and opaque, the wine has good legs. It has a full nose that evokes plums and roses. It has a smooth entry and good acidity. This is a complex wine. On the tongue, it has a bit of bite with undertones of cinnamon and nutmeg. It also has a good mid-palate and a truly impressive finish.
Hidden Cellars Zinfandel Old Vines Mendocino 1993 ($11.99) was another favorite. Medium ruby in color, the wine has good legs. There’s plenty of chocolate and pepper in the nose and on the palate there’s cherries and more black pepper. The wine has mild tannins and a good, though somewhat coarse, finish.
The lowest priced wine of the tasting was Talus Zinfandel California 1993 ($8.99). This wine is from Sebastiani.
It has a good alcohol content (13.5%) , deep purple color, and a pleasant floral bouquet. It’s also quite smooth
on entry. Nevertheless, it was, disappointingly, thin. This is not a typical zinfandel. Rather it is an easy drinking wine
that could be drunk by it self or with lighter foods.
I was disappointed by two wines at the first tasting. The first was Storybook Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel Napa Estate 1992 ($14.99). Ruby in color, the wine is beginning to show some glycerin around the edge. It has a tobacco nose and very long legs. Unfortunately, the wine proved to be thin and bland. This was surprising given this maker’s reputation for long-aging zins. Maybe it was a bad bottle or perhaps the wine has gone into its dumb stage. I’d like to give it another try.
The second disappointment was Perry Creek Vineyards Zinfandel Eldorado 1994 ($11.99). This wine came highly recommended. It is garnet in color and has no legs to speak of. It has faint cherries and peaches on the nose and maybe some cedar, but no pepper or spice. One taster commented, It has all the character of an uninvited guest.
The second tasting included a number of less expensive yet impressive wines and a number of truly exceptional, classic zins.
Marietta Cellars produced two of the top wines: The Marietta Sonoma County Zinfandel 1994 ($13.99) is superb. Deep purple in color, it has long long legs that reflect its full body. Tantalizing cherries and red fruit characterize its bouquet. On entry, it bursts into flavor on the tonguean explosion of flavors: meat, plums, figs. The wine is pleasantly dry with mild tannins. The wine has a good mid palate and good acidity. The finish, however, while adequate was not great.
Impressive also was the Marietta Old Vine Red Lot #17 ($8.99). The wine is light ruby in color with hints of pepper and tarragon on the nose. For an inexpensive zin, it has long legs. Smooth on entry, it delivers rich cherry flavors on the tongue and has a nice mid palate. The finish, however, is short. This wine is an excellent value; not only does it go well with food but also serves as a great wine for sipping on a Sunday afternoon.
Another lower priced, impressive zin was Fetzer Vineyards Barrel Select Zinfandel 1993 ($8.99). The wine has a garnet color. Its nose is straightforward and appealing with cherries and just a touch of spice. The wine has a smooth entry and is peppery on the tongue though still a little tannic. This is a well-made wine with good acid and an adequate finish. Its price makes it a great buy.
Yet another low-priced entry was Sonoma Creek Winery Zinfandel Contra Costa County 1995 ($8.99). The most appealing thing about this wine is its label. Very light garnet in color, it has an unpleasant sweaty nose. On the palate the wine is very thin and has at best a Jolly Rancher hard candy taste. I don’t recommend this wine.
Another disappointment was Ravenswood Zinfandel Vintners Blend 1994 ($9.99). I’ve always like this wine but this bottle just didn’t deliver. It had a good ruby color but no legs. It was dumb on the nose and just vapid on the palate. A flat, characterless wine.
Now to return to the stars of the tasting. Rosenblum Cellars California Zinfandel Vintners Cuvee XII N.V. ($8.99). Rich ruby in color, the wine has good legs and a beautiful, seductive nose of red berries. A smooth entry is followed by ripe fruit on the tongue with a hint of vanilla. It also has good acid and an adequate finish. I was surprised to find that the wine had great deal of finessenot a characteristic of most zinfandels, but one that might make it appealing to a wider audience. This zin proved to be a perfect accompaniment to the roasted lamb. At $8.99, this is definitely a best buy.
The final two wines of the tasting were both superb. Ridge California Zinfandel Sonoma 1994 ($15.99). The least expensive zinfandel from this justifiably renowned producer, the wine is dark ruby to deep purple in color. It has beautiful, long legs and a nose of blackberries and vanilla. Superbly smooth on entry, the wine is rich and full bodied delivering loads of true zinfandel flavor accompanied by good black pepper. Great finish. Buy this wine.
One of the biggest and most powerful wines with an alcohol content of 15% was Renwood Zinfandel Old Vine 1993 ($15.99). Deep ruby in color, the wine has long, long legs. Red currants and celery characterize its nose. A smooth entry is followed by bursts of chocolate, subtle black pepper, and raspberry on the tongue. Good acid and rich jammy fruit. The wine has a long finish. I highly recommend this wine.
Please let us know what you think about these wines on our feedback page. In our next issue, we’ll publish selected visitors’ comments.