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A Closer Look at Red Zinfandel
It was never supposed to happen. It all started when a lone tank of fermenting grapes got a little too hot and produced what would become one of America’s best selling wines. It is said that accidents happen for a reason, but this accident would forever change the perception of one of California’s most misunderstood grape varieties: Zinfandel.
There are many questions that arise when it comes to Zinfandel. To start, it is not always made into a pink wine. To also clear up any confusion, ‘White Zinfandel’ is not a white wine. Bob Trincheiro, who is credited with its creation, originally wanted to name his happy accident ‘Oeil de Perdrix’, yet American labelling laws would not allow him to name the wine using foreign words. Thus, White Zinfandel [Zinfandel made like a white wine] was born and the couple hundred cases made in 1972 would grow to become a multi-million case cash cow for Sutter Home
It’s hard to say what Zinfandel would be without it’s sweeter cousin. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with White Zinfandel. Although cheap and decadently sweet, it has its place with those who want to enjoy something simple. What is misconstrued is the reputation that Zinfandel has received as a result of its pink popularity. Unlike it’s cheaper counterpart, Zinfandel has the ability to make incredibly powerful, stark and delicious red wine.
Comparing the qualities of the two styles is like comparing cats and dogs; The differences are quite polarizing. A hefty dose of palate shock is in store for the White Zinfandel drinker who is looking to convert themselves. Where to begin:
- First, the modern styles of today often have a reputation for an obscene degree of alcoholic potency. As an example, you can expect around 15 percent in alcohol by volume out of a red Zinfandel in comparison to the ballpark 7 percent you find with its sweeter rose form.
- To add, there is no noticeable leftover residual sugar in the red versions but what is more apparent is the difference in flavour profile. Dried red and blue fruits, cola, licorice, spices and silky oak tones are common with red Zinfandel. Acid and tannin play a much more significant role in the style of red Zinfandel, whereas these qualities usually remain fairly absent in the rose version
- Food pairings are also much more flexible with red Zinfandels. Although the list is limited due to Zinfandel's intense structural capacity, red Zinfandel is a superb accompaniment to barbecued foods, tougher meats like jerky, and heartier stews to name a few. A popular favorite on my part is pairing with a cheeseburger that is lighter on the condiments. Ketchup and mustard will prove for a conflict if added to the mix.
From a production standpoint, Zinfandel made as a red wine can be very troublesome for a winemaker due to the structural nature of this grape. Attaining balance can be hard to get right, especially when managing Zinfandel's alcoholic strength in conjunction with its other structural components such as acidity and tannin. Paramount to its success in its final form, a red Zinfandel needs to be picked at just the right time to strike the balance in completion.
Why mention this? With this point, a cheaper example that is bound to see less attention in the winemaking facility is not always a solid option. Lower price point Zinfandels have a tendency to be aggressively full-bodied with an untamed spicy quality, sporting underripe greener tones, sandy tannins and a harsh finish. Thus it’s always wise to invest a little more when it comes to this grape than usual to avoid a less than pleasant onboarding experience. A good recommended starting point is around the $20 price point with a reputable producer. Although there are exceptions, finicky grapes usually require more time and attention. Thus, paying more in this general instance usually serves the drinker better. The same can be said for other grapes like Pinot Noir and Merlot.
With the extreme care that is needed in the winemaking process, the vineyard work is even more interesting. Although these vineyards are slowly disappearing to more popularly commercial grapes, a scarce amount of vineyards around California are home to century old Zinfandel vines that have managed to pass the test of time. The sandy mixture of soil in which they lie, combined with dry and arid conditions have allowed these vines to weather hardship through the decades with minimal challenge to pressure or disease. They last to produce some of California's heritage labels that are a testament to the history of this great winegrowing region that is otherwise overshadowed by Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Nonetheless, the stewards of these vineyards take extreme care in their importance, producing incredible wines from their low production and concentrated berries. There are many pioneer characters who still have managed to hang on and continue to produce the other narrative of Zinfandel's interesting tale through these ancient sites. The names mentioned below are iconic and notable producers of quality red Zinfandel who have a history with professionals and collectors alike. If there is a streak of curiosity created from this reading…
- Morgan Twain Peterson, MW, the son of Zinfandel legend Joel Peterson, still represents his father's legacy to brilliant heights with Bedrock Wine Co.
- Tegan Passalacqua, who heads the winemaking production at the famed Turley Wine Cellars, produces some of California’s finest single vineyard old vine Zinfandel wines. While Tegan’s wines represent a more premium aspect of this red grape, these bottlings are nothing short of amazing showcasing the true power of old vine Zinfandel. Superb Petite Sirah is also a notable calling card of Turley’s reputation. There is even a dry “White Zinfandel” bottling that is obscurely produced in small quantities
- Joseph Swan Vineyards continues to make amazing Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel in the higher elevation parts of Northern Sonoma. Swan also has an outstanding reputation for producing Pinot Noir that is considered a benchmark in Sonoma
- Bill Easton, a Rhone Ranger also known for amazing Syrah under the Domaine de la Terre Rouge label, makes considerably delicious Zinfandel under his Easton Estates label