California Zinfandel: A Lesson in Vintage and Regional Success
How homegrown grapes and a few off seasons remind us of the glory of Zin
Zinfandel, it’s no secret that I’ve carried on a long and intimate relationship with you. There is so much you have to offer. Sometimes you're a bit rough and tumble, edgy, even dangerous, while other times you’re coy or playful. But you’re always there for me, with joyous fruit, classic bramble notes and structure, allowing for early consumption, affording a certain modicum of age-worthiness, and pairing well with a broad and diverse range of dishes.
Well, let’s say you’re almost always there for me. For years, in fact, Zinfandel and I had a bit of a falling out. When alcohols reach higher than 16 percent, things just don’t go smoothly for Zin and me. Yes, it might garner a lot of points, and more than its fair share of attention, but to me Zinfandel is, among other things, a hedonist’s wine. And in that light, its first responsibility is to provide pleasure to the drinker. As much as I might be impressed with a massive, dense monster of a Zinfandel, in all honesty I don’t find that style pleasurable.
Fortunately for all of us, Zinfandel has undergone a renaissance of late; not only have the wines become more expressive of variety and place, but the places themselves have become better appreciated. This is due in large part to the the founders of the Historic Vineyard Society, a nonprofit organization established to promote, protect and preserve the historic vineyards of California. It’s worth checking out their site, and thanking them every chance you get for the work they’re doing in furthering the understanding of how very special these old vineyards are—and how unique the wines they produce can be.
This reassessment of these special vineyards has led many winemakers to a better understanding of the terroir of great plots of old vine Zinfandel, and what treasures they are. There is no longer a single model built on the “more is better” philosophy that did considerable damage to the California wine industry over the past two decades (and whose after effects we still endure). In its place has been born an effort to express something unique in each wine. More than even with Cabernet, which to my palate remains plagued with a monotony born of a perfect model, Zinfandel expresses terroir.
The idea is simple: since many, if not most, of these Zinfandel vineyards are in fact field blends to one degree or another, they shouldn’t express themselves in the same way. Yes, there are a group of markers that one specific region might share, but there is no reason adjacent vineyards should taste the same. Freed from trying to capture an ideal—the quintessential Napa Valley Zinfandel for example—means that winemakers can be more responsive to and better shepherds of the unique traits that each vineyard affords them.