When I think of Sonoma, my thoughts naturally drift off to the great wines that so many of us enjoy. Pinot Noir has become somewhat of a poster child for Sonoma’s red wines -- just think of the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley and the first thought that comes to mind may very well be Pinot. (If it’s not, you may want to check out my previous article on Sonoma Pinot Noir.)
But, to be honest, when we’re talking about wine and the topic drifts over to Sonoma County, Pinot is not my first thought. Sonoma Pinot is a relatively new arrival in my worldview of wine. For me, some of the first, and greatest, Sonoma wines were (and are) old vine Zinfandel.
Zinfandel is sort of the ugly stepchild of the wine world. It’s not glamorous and only rarely gets the high scores and big bucks, but it delivers so much that it’s a wine you ignore at your own peril! So, what makes Zin so appealing? Where do I begin!
It’s worth mentioning about those great old Zins (and maybe it’s more a comment on my preferences) that, along with Petite Sirah, they work particularly well with American oak barrels. Perhaps it’s just sentimental of me, as most of the great Zins of my youth were marked by American oak, but the raw, assertive nature of American oak seems to stand up well to the raw, assertive fruit of great Zin.
And about that Petite Sirah -- most of those old Zins had a good dollop of Petite in the blend, and many had a bit of who knows what as they were made in the classic field blend style. I’m not saying that all Zin needs a bit of help, but I do think back at how special some of those wines were, and I can’t help but wonder if the little bit of this and some of that added some magic that time revealed! As always, your mileage may vary, but that’s what I think.
Another almost unique feature that Zinfandel brings to the table are the exceptionally old vine vineyards that are an American viticultural treasure. Many of these vineyards lay in Sonoma County, and in particularly in the Dry Creek Valley. That’s no coincidence but rather the product of over a century of selection. Farmers and growers have slowly but surely narrowed down certain areas where Zinfandel thrives, where it really can produce something special and more distinctive than say a vineyard of Cabernet or Pinot Noir.
These great plots of land produce great Zinfandel. If you’ve never had a Zinfandel that you thought was special, try a few of these old vine bottlings before you dismiss the grape entirely. Even some of my close-minded, Euro-palated, flavor-hating, elite wine geek friends have found a Zinfandel or two that makes them smile, at least on the inside!
A few brief word on the vintages tasted for this article.
2007 - This is an outstanding vintage for Sonoma Zinfandel with wines that are slightly lower than usual in alcohol due to cool, even temperatures throughout the summer, and they show a corresponding bright acidity that gives these red-fruited wines a lovely purity and brightness. These are wines that are balanced, so they should age well, yet are immediately accessible and almost elegant for Zinfandel.
2008 - A much more difficult year; growers faced virtually every challenge available. A crippling frost early in the season reduced yields from the get go. Strong winds during bloom further reduced the potential crop, and what berries were left were subjected to a cool summer that was followed by a blisteringly hot September. It’s an understatement to say this was a tough year, yet many producers were able to manage the challenges well and produced an interesting crop of Zinfandel.
So be on the look-out for some great Zins; I’m stocking up on 2007s. The producers below all warrant a look, and if you want to visit any or all of them, check out Visa’s trip planner for information about these wineries and many others. Now, without further ado, here are 5 Sonoma wineries that are especially worth your time.
QuiviraThe name Quivira refers to a mythical kingdom, an El Dorado of sorts that is reported to be featured on ancient European maps of California’s north coast. Of course, the winery has a much briefer history, having been founded in 1981. The current owners, Pete and Terri Kight, purchased the winery in 2006 and immediately set out on making some improvements.
Quivira was pretty well known back in the day for it’s Zin, among other wines, but the new owners are committed to improving the quality of the wines while switching over to organic and biodynamic farming. And with almost all the wines coming from estate fruit, with the exception of the Dry Creek Zinfandel, that switch is effecting the entire Quivira line-up.
Even with the Dry Creek Valley bottling one finds that most of the fruit is in fact farmed biodynamically. With fruit sourced from 4 vineyards, the breakdown goes something like this:
- 9 acres planted in 1998 under long term lease from the Anderson Family. It's 100% biodynamic, much of which is bottled in Quivira’s single vineyard Anderson Ranch Zinfandel.
- 14.5 acres planted in 1984 and 1991 on the Wine Creek Ranch Estate Vineyard. 100% biodynamic.
- 8 acres planted at the Goat Trek Ranch in Healdsburg planted in 1999 and purchased by Quivira in 2007. Transitioning to organic/biodynamic.
- 2 acres planted in 1900 at the Katz/Absher ranch in Healdsburg; these are dry-farmed and grow in a former creek bed.
Quivira’s Zinfandel is aged in French oak and has bit of Petite Sirah in the blend.
Pezzi KingPezzi King is named for owners Jim and Jane Rowe’s mothers, respectively, and is a relative newcomer to the Sonoma Zinfandel scene. Founded in 1993, the first move the Rowes undertook was to immediately eliminate the use of all chemicals in the vineyards and implement tried and true natural farming techniques.
While this natural approach extends throughout the vineyard, the winemaking facilities at Pezzi King are state of the art, allowing the Rowes to produce award winning Dry Creek Zinfandels that compete with many of the Valley’s greatest.
Pezzi King Zinfandels are 100% estate grown Zin, and are aged in both French and American oak.
This offers up powerfully aromatic notes of cocoa, black pepper, leather and dried red fruits and cedar in a no-holds-barred alcoholic style. In the mouth it’s ripe and bright but not over the top with spicy red plummy fruit, earth and briar tones. The finish is surprisingly not really that hot with a nice dry, almost austere edge to the fine tannins. It’s got excellent length and nice cinnamon-y complexity with a forceful delivery. 90pts
Dark dried fruits and black cherry on the nose are joined by a touch of creamy milk chocolate, candlewax, white pepper and jasmine. On entry this is lush and deep with the alcohol just barely peeking out, no mean feat for a 16% wine. It’s really packed with soft tannins and bright acids supporting deep dark cherry fruit tones edged in raspberry and wood spice with a nice chocolate note on the long finish. A bruiser of a wine but one with fine balance. 91pts
MauritsonClay Mauritson got an early start in the wine business. Coming from a family that has been growing grapes in the Dry Creek Valley since 1868 certainly makes that seem easy, but it was only in 1998 that Mauritson released its inaugural Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel.
With exceptional vineyards strewn throughout the Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Rockpile Appellations, it’s easy to see how Clay might have been tempted. While the Dry Creek Valley has traditionally been home to some of the purest and most complex expressions of this grape, the Rockpile AVA is quickly establishing itself as a close competitor, albeit without the long history and old vines.
Mauritson Zinfandel is produced with a small addition of Petite Sirah and is aged in both American and French oak.
A bit fudgy and almost maple-syrupy on the nose with deep spicy fruit that has an almost exotic quality to it making me think of dragonfruit and cactus fruit over absolutely liquory blackberry fruit. This is rich and dense in the mouth with fine yet gritty little tannins and bright acid offering a great contrast to the pure, ripe yet almost cool (for Zin) fruit. It straddles a fine line between blockbuster and a more sedate style but ultimately comes down on the balanced, fine side of that line. It’s got some evident oak on the moderately long finish but not too much. A really nice Zin that managed to stay tense in the mouth. 92pts
Acorn WineryAcorn's motto pretty much says it all: “Estate grown, sustainably-farmed field blend wines.” What more is there to say about this small project begun in 1990? Not that much, except that they stand for so much that I value.
While Betsy & Bill Nachbaur got started in 1990 by buying the Alegria Vineyards, they only began producing wine with the Acorn Winery label in 1994. One of the jewels in the Acorn line-up is their Heritage Vines Zinfandel, sourced from Alegria’s original 1890’s vineyard.
That’s not the only wine that has its roots in the past at Acorn. In fact, every wine produced by Acorn is a field blend, and a field blend in the truest sense of the word. The vineyards are planted with mixed varieties and the grapes are co-fermented.
This style of winemaking poses its challenges, but when you have a vineyard that can create a blend of 82% Zinfandel, 8% Alicante Bouschet, 8% Petite Sirah, while the remaining 2% includes Carignane, Trousseau, Sangiovese, Petit Bouschet, Negrette, Syrah, Plavac Mali, Tannat, Muscat Noir, Peloursin, Beclan, Cinsaut, and Grenache, you don’t really have a choice.
Acorn Zinfandel is aged in a combination of French, American and Hungarian oak.