From the Cellar: Zinfandel

With Zinfandel on the brain, GDP gives us a peek at some of his cellar selections


I’ve had Zinfandel on my mind as of late. From attending the ZAP Festival in January right up to my recent efforts to pair grilling recipes with Zins, they’ve been a major focus of my recent efforts. While I have been celebrating the grape, there are so many great expressions available today, there is one aspect of Zinfandel that keeps it from being considered as a truly noble grape: ageability.

The ability of a wine to improve with age is one of the benchmarks closely associated with their perceived prestige. There’s little reason for this, with one very powerful exception. Many wine lovers build cellars as much for drinking as for show, and while row upon row of old zinfandel might be visually impressive, the truth is that the wines themselves generally peak relatively early, within their first decade, and fade rather quickly. The wines may still be fun to drink, many Zinfandels from the 1970s turn into something approximating Rioja for example, with their faded fruit, autumnal character, and evidence of American oak still intact, but they are now better than they were in their youth.

Examples from more recent vintages, with higher alcohols and lower acidities, reflective of the trends dominating production over the past two decades, have fared worse. Many of these wines have simply imploded once the fruit has faded, leaving mostly alcohol and added acidity to torture one’s palate. The evidence supports the general consensus that Zinfandel is best consumed in its youth, but that doesn’t mean that some hard-headed wine lovers out there might want to test that theory, intentionally or not.

Being one of these hard-headed types, I’ve cellared Zins for 30 years now. Not many, but enough to know that the wines that outperform after decades in the cellar are the rare exceptions. But still, I have a few cases tucked away in my cellar, and considering all the intellectual effort I’ve been devoting to Zin as of late, this seemed like a great time to do a little cellar cleansing, or rather test the general consensus.
All of the wines in this tasting were bought on release, and were in apparent excellent condition. The labels showed signs of their losing battle with the conditions in my cellar, but the fills on most of the wines were phenomenal, creating some unfounded confidence that we were to be in for a treat this evening. It can easily be argued that these were not the best examples to cellar, either due to the vintage or producer, but I would argue that this was a rather representative sampling of the types of wines produced in two distinct eras.

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Old Zinfandel Tasted April 2013

David Bruce Zinfandel Mendocino (1981)
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Preston of Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel Estate Bottled (1981)
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Fetzer Zinfandel California Ricetti (1982)
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Fetzer Zinfandel California Ricetti (1983)
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Haywood Zinfandel Sonoma Valley (1983)
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Haywood Zinfandel Sonoma Valley (1985)
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Mazzocco Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley (1990)
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Schuetz Oles Zinfandel Napa Valley Korte Ranch (1991)
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Topolos Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Rossi Ranch (1992)
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Ridge Pagani (1993)
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Dry Creek Vineyard Old Vines Zinfandel Sonoma County (1994)
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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: runhack
    131870 17

    If a "volatile mess" gets 65 points, and a "horrible" wine gets 50 points, your rating system is very broken.

    May 09, 2013 at 3:20 PM

  • Snooth User: Zuiko
    Hand of Snooth
    540750 839

    Those were some interesting findings. I had a 2001 Villa Mt Eden Zin last year that was still alive and that surprised me. Even though it was not a great wine upon release, it still held up well and was enjoyable.

    May 09, 2013 at 3:32 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    I use the same rasting scale as other wine reviewers, which begins at 50 points. whether it's broken or not is a valid question.

    Remember that wines get points for color, smell, taste, texture, and finish. Any one of which can outperform the rest by a wide margin. Any wine that scores under 70pts fails miserable to deliver in several of those categories and should be avoided. A wine between 70 and 80 points can be simple, somewhat defective, but pleasurable nonetheless.

    Thanks Zuiko. It's fun to see what happens to these wines and where they end up. Not always a good idea to save them, but still fun and that's what wine is all about for me. I'm glad you enjoyed your Villa Mt Eden!

    May 09, 2013 at 3:58 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,004

    You drink these so we don't have to.
    Clay Mauritson told a good story about why he makes a Port styled wine. Seems his grandfather used to cellar two kinds of wines, Ports and Zinfandel. The latter was made from his own grapes, or by neighbors in DCV. Clay remembers him opening amazing ports and bottles of pure vinegar made from Zin. Clay would be the last one to tell you to hold these wines thirty years. Michael Talty gave me a six or seven year old Zin as an example of a wine that "aged well." I think some Zins continue to improve for about 6-8 years, but then the window of the peak is short. I'm going to comb my cellar and make sure none of mine gets past ten years old. I don't think drinking them in the 4-6 year window will be very hard.
    The short life comes from a relatively low ratio of skin to pulp. We think of Zins as big wines, but keeping color, tannin, and phenolic levels high is actually tough because the berry is relatively large and the skin thin. The seeds don't add much help, either.
    Sad that a wine that gives so much pleasure and can have so much complexity relatively early in its life doesn't get the designation of classic or noble because of the limits on its aging. Unlike Grenache, which also has limited aging potential on its own, Zinfandel has rich, complex flavors that compare well with the great age-worthy wines but at an early age. If it keeps the prices in the reasonable range, I guess we should be happy. So, drink up and enjoy!

    May 09, 2013 at 4:21 PM

  • Snooth User: outthere
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    324443 4,225

    Im sorry ;(

    May 09, 2013 at 6:28 PM

  • Snooth User: MikeDashe
    417618 4

    Great article, Gregory--it brought back memories for me. I helped make that 1993 Ridge Pagani Ranch Zinfandel as Asst. Winemaker at Ridge in the '90s, and I remember that the intensity of fruit and the thickness of the wine from these old vines were off the charts. In fact, those early Pagani Ranch wines were almost too big--it was clear that they would need years to soften and integrate all the flavors that were showing in the wines at their youth. Glad to see that the wine has stood the test of time so well. Thanks for having the cellar and patience for showing people how these wines aged. --Michael Dashe

    May 09, 2013 at 6:46 PM

  • Snooth User: grostern
    650101 2

    Some wines are not for storing and saving.
    Drink young and drink fresh.
    Mort Grostern
    Montreal Canada

    May 09, 2013 at 9:00 PM

  • Snooth User: Zuiko
    Hand of Snooth
    540750 839

    For some reason, this resurrection of these old zins brings back memories of Wine World magazine. Ah the good ol' days.

    May 09, 2013 at 10:54 PM

  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 156

    GDP, I have maybe a dozen or so bottles of high alcohol zin that are 6-8 yrs old and really falling apart. Next time you are in the Bay Area I will be happy to give them all to you :-)

    May 10, 2013 at 3:07 AM

  • Snooth User: MikeDashe
    417618 4

    I must write to say that I have a cellar full of Ridge wines, most of them between 12 and 20 years old, that are all drinking just fine. I think if you pick the grapes when they're ripe (and not overripe), have good acid and tannin levels (which help the wine age), make a balanced and layered wine, and blend well, that Zinfandel can indeed age beautifully. I know that my own wines from Dashe Cellars have been drinking quite well even after 10 or more years--my 2000 and 2001 single vineyard wines are holding up just fine. I'm just saying that as wineries move towards more balanced (and less overripe) styles, that you'll find more examples of ageworthy zins.

    May 10, 2013 at 1:24 PM

  • Snooth User: dryhopped2
    544495 25

    I recently had a 2000 Unti Sonoma Zin. It was very much alive with great fruit and black pepper followed by leather and olive notes.

    May 12, 2013 at 8:40 PM

  • Mike, I love your Zins, especially the "lighter" style Heart Arrow. I had no idea Zin wasn't just a big & burly wine, but could be beautifully balanced like a fine Pinot. Thank You!

    May 15, 2013 at 3:37 PM

  • I had a bottle of 1995 Clos du Bois just this week, I thought it might be past it's prime, or dead, and was pleasantly surprised by its still lively raspberry & leather, with a long finish. Perfect with the grilled pork tenderloin! I will go through my cellar tonight and find another gem, I hope.

    May 22, 2013 at 8:18 PM

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