California Zinfandel: A Lesson in Vintage and Regional Success
How homegrown grapes and a few off seasons remind us of the glory of Zin
One last point on this concept of ideals. A familiar refrain when tasting Cabernet, or Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is that they don’t compare with Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or Sancerre. Well of course not, jackwagon, it’s not one of those things, it’s home grown! And yet we can’t help but make those comparisons, particularly if we think the homegrown versions don’t measure up. Bunch of wine snobs we are. Zinfandel doesn’t have that problem. Yes, there is Primitivo from Italy, but it’s not really the same thing as Zin, and frankly it’s not as good a wine in general terms.
Not to put down the Italians—they are making many great wines and improving all the time. But Zinfandel has a long and storied history in California. We know how to grow it, where to grow it, what to grow it with, and how to make it. We have a serious head start with our adopted indigenous variety.
One thing that we have not really had, at least recently, is experience with challenging conditions through the growing season. And that has definitely been a trend over the recent year in California. Zinfandel already has a reputation as a tough variety to grow, relatively thin-skinned, prone to rot, and notoriously uneven ripening; one has to wonder how it would fare in these three most recent vintages. The answer (for the most part) is just fine, thank you very much. Yet another strike against vintage charts, which can tell you about the character of a vintage but tend to fail when it comes to the quality of a vintage, or certainly the quality of any particular producer in any given year.
2009 had the potential to be a very good vintage, though split in two by rain at harvest. The grapes harvested before the storm may lack some ripeness but show freshness, early accessibility, and moderate alcohols—a welcome change in my book. Those harvested after the rains probably shouldn't have been harvested in many places, but the wines I tried from conscientious producers did not exhibit any overt defects.
While 2009 was made, or broken, at the end of the growing season, 2010 tried producers’ patience all through the season, with cold snaps, heat waves, and more rain. Portions of western Sonoma county, home to many of the greatest old vine Zinfandel vineyards, were particularly hard hit, but the truth is that wines from the vineyards that suffered the most simply never made it into the bottles of the top producers. Sold off in bulk and just abandoned, these wines did reduce the crop in 2010, but the wines that were produced are quite attractive, again lower in alcohol, and in contrast to 2009, more structured than normal. They seem to be wines that harken back to the 1970s, with their rugged demeanor and bright fruit. What’s to be afraid of?
As if things couldn’t get any worse. “Worst in a generation”—that’s a common refrain when referring to 2011 in California's wine country. Of course you have to keep things in context and realize how freaking fortunate California usually is when it come to weather, so their “awful” might very well be someone else’s “normal.” In this case, normal was cool, and wet, and then cool, and then wet, and then warm, a recipe for rot-induced disaster that reduced yields in many place by 30 percent to 50 percent. Yet once again, what was produced was a departure from the norm: lower alcohol, fresher fruited wines, wines I have a decided affinity for. So while winemakers struggled for these three vintages, they also learned more about their craft, their vineyards, and the wines they are capable of producing.