If you set your WABAC machine for the 1890s, in San Francisco you would be told two things – the scrub vines that lined the hot cliffs of the arroyos of the valley were indigenous, and that they weren’t much good for anything.
In the late 1970s Trinchero started making a sweet blush out of these zinfandel grapes, and found they had a hit on their hands. Almost all the zin harvested for the next ten years went into ‘white’ zin, a major seller to this day. Vintners also took to making dry reds, which became something of a cult hit in the ‘80s.
And it was about this time, many of the wineries began returning to the Anglo mistake of a hundred years earlier and claiming zin was native to California. Such statements were greeted with a nudge and a wink by Italians and Croatian immigrants. Eventually academics got around to checking the DNA and discovered that indeed America’s ‘native grape’ was a clone of a Croatian wine, also grown in hot Puglia where it is known as Primitivo.
The old world version is heady (15 per cent ABV), dark and seductive. In Sicily and Puglia it was served in clay jugs soaked in water; the evaporation providing natural cooling and making it among the coldest of wines served.
The Californian version today has taken on a sort of American halo. It is served at Thanksgiving, making a perfectly foul pairing with turkey, and in the last ten years or so has become something of a juggernaut. It grows well in the heat producing lots of yield with high sugar content.
The label most people know around here is Gnarly Head which seems to be offered by about half the restaurants in town. This isn’t a great wine, but it isn’t a bad one either. When opened you’ll be greeted by a distinct metallic odour, due to the copper sulphate fining screw caps require. This will clear off after a few minutes in the glass, but the final bouquet is somewhat lacking.
The palate has that spicy flavour set of which zin-fiends can’t get enough. The sugars are under control, and tannins are quite soft. It is an easy drinking red wine that therefore healthful, or at least so many folks believe. As a compromise wine when there’s a table full of palates and budgets to please this is a pretty good choice.
Bonterra is a long time organic winery and I quite enjoy having their zin from time to time to taste the vintage variance. The tannins were stronger than Gnarly Head (a plus) and the sugar levels seemed about the same to me. The bouquet had more fruit. However the wine was considerably more refined and subtle. Normally zinfandel is about as subtle as a tune from Death Row records. I will have to drink a few more bottles to be sure, but this may actually be a fine wine, a sentence I never expected to type about a zinfandel.
Ravenswood Vintners Blend will be offered by your server as “Big and Bold!” It has the zin palate in spades, a touch more tannin than the Gnarly Head but not enough to disturb Aunt Edith’s post yoga Tao. Sugar levels are unremarkable. Alk levels are low for a zin (13.5 ABV i.e. probably 14.9). Acidity is restrained and astringency wholly absent. In brief this is a wine to serve to vegetarians alongside their grilled fennel.
Paso Creek Zinfandel is one of the few zins I think deserves the title of “bold”. There is a nice tannin structure to this one, although I think it could stand a bit more acidity. The bouquet is fruity, and the sugars not particularly apparent. It has that spicy characteristic of a good zin, and it has a darker meatier core that is quite attractive. This strikes me as a pulled pork wine. It doesn’t really have the tannins to stand up to tenderloin, but it does have enough to take on a barbecue sauce. What’s more the vinegar in the sauce will probably accent the basic nature of Paso Creek nicely.
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Of all these wines I’m likely to drink Bonterra or when pushed Paso Creek, but I’m not a zin guy. If you are such a person, I’d start with Paso Creek and Ravenswood. They’re all more enjoyable cold, about 10C/45F degrees.
Ravenswood Zinfandel, USA, 2011. $20 ****
Bonterra Zinfandel, USA, 2010. $22 ****
Gnarly Head Zinfandel, USA, 2012. $ ****
Paso Creek Zinfandel, USA, 2011. $ ****
James Romanow writes about wine and all things boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze.