The Best of Zinfandel

An amazing line up of the very best Zinfandels



It's not often that I have a plan. Well, a detailed plan at least.. Some sort of a plan not being a requirement for those in this business. But a detailed plan, and over-arching theme for a visit to wine country can certainly come in handy. 
 
This month’s, or rather last month’s theme was, surprisingly enough: Zinfandel. I say surprisingly because in a land full of vines, Zinfandel accounts for about 50,000 acres out of California’s over half million acres of vineyards. That 10% is about half the acreage of either Chardonnay or Cabernet, almost the same as Merlot and more than Pinot Noir’s 40,000 acres, which surprised me. Based on this I should only be devoting about 10% of my California coverage to Zinfandel, right?
 
Even with all this land under vine Zin doesn’t get 10% of the wine coverage out there. And what’s with Pinot? Probably the second most heavily written about variety in California and a wine that has seen production quintuple over the past decade while Zinfandel’s has remained fairly stable. In these number lies two stories.. The first is why Zin is not that heavily written about, it’s popularity has remained stable, and truth be told as with most wines that popularity is mostly built upon rather inexpensive and not terribly distinctive wines. 
The stability of Zin production hints at another story, more positive, and in fact the germ of this story right here. All those acres that are producing Zin today, well they were producing Zin ten years ago, and ten years before that and so on, and so on, in some case back a century or more. Not only is there a story to be told about old vine Zinfandel, but there is a lesson to be learned, quite literally. These old vine vineyards are producing some fantastic wines at affordable prices. But there’s more! Order today and not only will you get a great value wine but you’ll get terroir absolutely free. That’s where my plan really came together. A plan to discover more of the terroir of Zinfandel.
 
Yes, that’s right I said terroir. Not terroir in the "Oh this smells like an expensive Cabernet" kind of way but terroir in the Carol Shelton Maple Vineyard Zin smells like the Bella Maple Vineyard Zin kind of way. I’m telling you folks that some of the greatest examples of terroir in California are found in Zinfandel. OK, shoot the messenger. I freely admit that I am still early in my learning curve in regards to this, though I’ve been fascinated by both the story of and the taste of these single vineyard Zins since about 1990, but I’ve only been able to make certain connections more recently.
 
It is no doubt due in part to the better winemaking, and the winemakers we have today, more in tune with revealing terroir than their winemaker’s signature. It is also about better farming practices, and ultimately about me and the community as well. Finally rewarding these wines with the attention and the respect that they deserve.

Producers visited for this article

Limerick Lane
Seghesio
Ridge Vineyards
Mauritson
Talty
Bella
Gary Farrell
Carol Shelton
Elyse
Storybook Mountain
T-Vine
Green and Red
Dashe


 
 
I’ve said recently that Grenache could replace Pinot Noir in the due course of time, offering everything that people like about value priced Pinot while being both better suited to the warm climate of California, and easier to grow. In like fashion Zinfandel should replace Cabernet at a certain price point, though there is no doubt that Zinfandel is much more difficult to grow and produce, so maybe that will not happen. But look at the  reasons why it could.

Zinfandel is a better value than Cabernet, just compare wines at $20 or $40 and see which is more distinctive. I’m not knocking all Cabernet, of course some are fabulous. It's just that due to demand much and maybe even most Cabernet is both over-priced and made in a style that pretty much obscures terroir and pulls the wines towards a standard of homogeneity. Zinfandel offers so much more. More variety of styles, that even I can’t say I like all of. More distinctive wines that really speak as much about variety as they do about origin. More approachability, and an ageing curve that means you cellar zin for a year or three before diving into to recent vintages as opposed to waiting five to ten for the great Cabernets to strut their stuff.
 
There are also more great producers than ever bottling world class, distinctive Zinfandels in a broader range of styles than ever before.  If you’ve tried a few examples and didn’t find them to your liking I urge you to continue your exploration. The diversity among producers is quite striking, though it can be hard to determine what one producer’s wines might be like without actually tasting the wines. Such is the state of both wine writing and wine labelling.  And if you are not sure about how you feel towards Zinfandel I suggest you open your mind, and pay attention to these wines. They have so much to offer, among which is their deep historical importance to the state of California and America’s wine industry. 
 
When you drink Zinfandel you drink a microcosm of the industry. the old vines, the field blends that harken back to earlier times. Then there are the microbins and new clones that attempt to address some of the issues Zinfandel has faced. It’s a very exciting time to be a lover of Zinfandel, though I must admit I do have some concerns. Those production figures for example. Zinfandel’s production has been stable over the past decade or so, though to be sure we’ve lost some of the great old vine vineyards. With any renewed interest in these wines the demand is sure to rise putting upward pricing pressure on the best examples. Maybe we are at an inflection point for these great wines. Already it is not uncommon to find $45 Zinfandels, a price point beyond the means of many. After all perhaps this article wasn’t as good idea as I had thought. But I do love these wines! 
 
Before we take a look at some producers and their wines a few words about recent vintages.
 
2013 - While it’s too early to tell exactly where things will pan out in 2013 things are at least looking promising. I heard some producers who believe it will be one of the greatest while others felt the sugars got ahead of the flavors a bit. Everything came in  pretty much together this year causing some logistical problems at smaller operations. It will be interesting to follow the development of these wines. 
 
2012 - A big, beautiful, ripe vintage that some are saying reminds them of 1991 in the sense that everything ripened well and evenly though at the same time and with yields coming in well above expectations space in the winery was at a premium. After the troublesome years of 09, 10 and 11 this was a blessing for the industry, though a few producers did say that they were concerned that the crop lead to some lighter wines they might have preferred. Leaving me to wonder whether they were referring to impacy of grape growing issues or winemaking issues due to the scramble for space. 
 
2011 - Softer for the most part with supple tannins and moderate scale, which is a positive outcome considering that most producers feel this is among the worst if not the first vintage of their lifetimes. Vineyards got off to a slow start and had to deal with a cool, damp growing season, which was particularly hard on heat loving Zinfandel. Still there were success, mostly those who were able to pick before the one two punch of storms that arrived in early October followed by a warm front that caused rot to become a significant issue for those who had hoped to wait out the storms. 
 
2010 - A cool vintage that was marked by a heat spike in August. Making matters worse is the proactive stance growers took after the difficult 2009 vintage which was also very cool. Aggressive canopy management and leaf pulling meant that when the heat spike struck many clusters had little protection from the sun. The results speak for themselves. Significant loss of fruit, up to 60% in some cases and an entire vineyard as an isolated case, and wines that often carry a roasted, almost pruny note even though their flavors tend to be rather fresh and towards the red end of the spectrum due to the cool growing season. Unusual wines but not without successes. 
 
2009 - Set the stage for 2010 in that it was a cool growing season followed by tremendous rain right before harvest that really impacted the production of Zinfandel. Growers who picked before the rains brought in some lighter Zins though many do show an unripe edge both in their higher acids, which can be welcome as well as with dry tannins which are often not well covered by the fruit in this difficult vintage. 
 
Now on to the show. Producers are listed in the order of my visits. Some were packed with Zinfandels, other featured but one example, but I’ve included them all here.
 
Limerick Lane - A producer whose wines I knew in the early 1990s but then they fell off my radar. Under new ownership recently and making an effort to bring the quality back up. I tasted only a single Zin, and it was from 2011 so I don’t feel particularly informed about the style here other than the oak was obvious and the acidity attractively high, both of which may relate more to the vintage than any emerging house style.
 
 
Intensely aromatic with spicy oak that is fairly prominent and a nice herbal hint under the vanilla all layered under lots of ripe, spicy blackberry fruit. Surprisingly light and fresh in the mouth with zesty red cherry fruit with a touch of rust supported by fine tannins. This is nicely aromatic in the mouth, with lovely purity tot he fruit and real energy in the mouth along with lots of refreshing acids. There's a  bit of heat obvious on the finish though this is very well behaved and fresh for Zin. 91pts 
 
Seghesio - One of the biggest names in Zinfandel and a perennial favorite among wine writers. I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed by their fine but rarely moving Dry Creek Valley Zin, though at the production level it’s a very good wine. The real gems here are the single vineyard wines which are quintessentially Zinfandel, full of bright fruit, slightly chewy textures, well structured and energetic in the mouth. 
 
 
Creamy cherry fruit is joined by a nice spicy note on the nose offering just a hint of wood and a  little blueberry. Full and fruity in the mouth delivering clear black berry fruit with soft tannins though this turns  a touch bitter and extracted on the backend, then a little creamy on the raw, modest finish. Perhaps a bit young. Might improve. 87pts
 
 
Blueberry, This is clear and mineral on the nose,  chalky earthy, and balsamic with wild berry and blueberry aromas. On the palate this is relatively light and elegant with fresh, gorgeous red currant, sour cherry and blueberry flavors. It’s a gorgeous wine, lively and bright with a fine inherent spice note leading to a clear, long pure fruit finish. So transparent and detailed for a wine this size. 94pts
 
 
Tight on the nose, and earthy with crushed blackberry fruit, a hint of wood spice, juniper and tobacco nuances.  A bit loose in the mouth with some woody tannins well buffered by nice richness of blackberry fruit that is almost jammy in the mouth. With nice acid and light mineral and woodsy spice on the moderately long slightly sweet styled finish, this is pretty classic Zin but it lacks a bit of energy, though it is tight so that may come with some time in bottle. 90pts
 
 
Smoky and dark on the nose  with aromas of dried meat, juniper, coffee and spice over a tight black currant and blackberry base notes. On entry this is elegant and lively with brushy little tannins. Quite clear on the palate but muscular with a deep earthy mineral vein that cuts through lovely fresh raspberry and currant fruit.  Very soil driven and a bit. rusty on the palate this has a lovely tannin structure, slightly dusty and long along with relatively high acid that keeps this fresh, taut and lively and particularly clear on the long finish where the fruit picks up a touch of blueberry. Nuanced, complex and powerful in a lean, focused way. 94pts
 
 
Oily and deep on the nose which is filled with jammy wild blackberry and black currant fruit, along with hints of charcoal and poppy seeds. This is very black fruited and shows more oak on the nose than the single vineyards. Soft and rich and very black fruited yet bright on the palate with lots of black raspberry fruit that’s a little chewy and old viney. Lots of soft tannins lend this a creamy, plush texture, though some bright acids enliven the long, pure, fruit driven finish. 91pts
 
 
Soft cafe au lait oak nose, features a hint of caramel and smoke layered over dark plummy, chocolate tinged fruit. The nose here is just a hint porty and pruny. Soft, broad and old viney in the mouth with nice clarity to the fresh blackberry  black raspberry fruit. This picks up a savory, vegetal note on the mid-palate that gets covered with clear and creamy fruit on the long finish. This is a bit dense and chewy in the mouth with very ripe tannins offering some support. 91pts
 
Ridge Vineyards- The grandfather of single vineyard field blends wines still produced in the way they were decades ago, albeit somewhat riper due to the climate and improved farming practices. American oak and gentle ripeness are the two identifying marks of these wines which tend to show rather vineyard specific characteristics that marks the finest Zins. Everybody should try a few Ridge Zins, particularly ones with some age on them to see the full potential of this grape, or more appropriately fields blends based on it. 
 
 
A bit stinky in the nose, earthy and very dark with crushed berry fruit accented by light pepper and ink notes. Crisp entry and then quite tense in the mouth with a bit of wood tannin sticking out early on the palate. The fruit here, a little spicy and red,  is quite clear if tight and rather soil driven supported by bright acids and small if slightly hard tannins that extend out on the long, mineral driven finish,. This seems to still be a bit disjointed and though it shows promise is missing a little something. 88pts
 
 
Beautiful on the nose with bright wild berry fruit framed by floral and mineral, and smoky top notes. Rich and powerful on entry, this is already very complex with sweet tart berry fruit framed by a little ash, briar and wood spice on entry. gaining focus in the mouth I love the tannins here, angular and craggy as they support the core of dark, inky bramble berry fruit. Just explosive on the mid-palate where the core of dark oily fruit is remarkably fresh and deep all leading to a long finish that shows off  a little chocolatiness of the oak. 92pts
 
 
A little spicy on the nose with super crushed berry fruit, a little poppy seeds, maybe even some fennel adding a provençal hint to the layered blackberry and brambly fruit with red fruit highlights. This has superb balance, clear and soil driven up front with fruit that hints at black currant, then soil and spice tones with a hint of dried herbs on the midpalate. Tannins are ripe and slightly pointy, acid is firm lending a tart note to the flavors, finishing with energy and fine tannins. Broad shouldered and narrow waisted with just terrific purity to the fruit and tannins show upon the finish. Vibrant and alive, this is great Zin. 94pts
 
 
Ripe with licorice and plum fruit on the nose, then turning spicy and showing a touch of caramel evolution. Bright and vibrant on entry with tart acids supporting fruit that's right on the line between fresh and aged retaining plenty of lightly peppery red fruit and softer, ripe plum notes emerging on the palate.  The tannins are really silky at this point, probably pretty much at peak and turning a bit earthy on the modest finish and rather structure driven, with some bubble gum vanilla and bay leaf oak showing through. 88pts
 
 
Vanilla toned and fresh with creamy currant aromas along with some licorice, and tart red fruit notes,. Decidedly fresher than the Mazzoni, soft and silky on the palate with blue fruit that is a bit inky,though  fresh and focused. This is easy to drink and rather zesty with fine cut on the palate, tannins that are supple and ripe lending a touch of fullness to the palate, which picks up a hint of herbal quality. It’s a bit short on the finish but pretty. I could see serving this slightly chilled for a summer’s BBQ. 89pts
 
 
Stemmy, herbal and complex on the nose which retains plenty of fresh fruit while showing wonderful integration of the oak. On entry this shows a little caramelly and dried plummy fruit character, soft, then brightening on the palate it’s definitely showing some evolved fruit here, all dark and deep small berried black fruit, with the tannins fairly resolved. With it’s savory liquorice and minty notes this tastes Italian. Drink up. 87pts
 
 
Still youthful and fruity on the nose with a fine underlay of fresh spicy wood and vanilla aromas. Still tight, and fairly taut, on the palate this shows off fine balance, this opens with a bit of char then reveals dried cherry fruit, floral tones, red fruit, pomegranate seeds, raspberry, soil tones,and a bit of chocolate all unravelling from the core. Ultimately this is very young but at the same time it is  clear and superbly vibrant, briary,and a little inky on the backend, and through the long finish which shows a little nutty, nutella, cocoa character. This is entering its peak drinking window. Enjoy it over the coming 5 years or so. 92pts
 
 
Simply gorgeous aromatics, all dried strawberry and raspberry supported by tobacco and woodspice and tart red fruit.  Broad, chewy and rich in the mouth with gorgeous fruit that is vibrant and clear, supported by polished little tannins. the structural balance here is really wonderful, though this needs another 2 to 3 years, it is already fabulous if a little chunky on the backend that pops with raspberry and red cherry flavors leading to a long, vibrant finish. Classic Geyserville in the making. 93pts
 
Mauritson - The name behind the Rockpile vineyard and AVA. I’ve enjoyed their wines in the past, though mostly the Mauritson Zinfandels and not the harder to find Rockpile Vineyards bottlings. I love mountain Zinfandel so have generally liked what I’ve tasted from Rockpile, both the vineyard and the brand and the style here seems to be trying to get the most out of their vines without getting too extreme so expect rather fruity but well balanced and intense yet fresh wines. It’s a fine line and they do it well.
 
 
5% petite, 40% Rockpile fruit
 
Black cherry and a little beefy on the nose with dusty and soil driven basenotes that show a little briar wood and a hint of smoked paprika. Very fresh and easy drinking in style with  soft tannins and well integrated acids supporting juicy blackberry and black cherry fruits. The tannins are a little raw today, adding a bit of chewiness to the coca tinged finish but this is really fresh and fruit filled so give it three to six months to settle down. 88pts
 
 
Deep and jammy on the nose which is nicely smoky with some mineral notes and lots of juniper, cigar wrapper and briar wood spice notes. Polished and clear with wonderful fruit on entry. This is all about Smith brothers black cherry cough drops in the mouth, tangy and deep, supported by fine grained yet firm tannins and nicely integrated acids, that keep the richness and plushness here in check. Some black tea and chocolate notes emerge on the finish along with a bit of peppery spice but this is one big, smooth, fruit driven wine at its core. There’s a lovely balance between all the fruit and the underlying structure. 92pts
 
Talty - One of my favorite producers and when you speak with Michael Talty you can see why. He likes to talk about the flavors of his fruit popping before he begins to harvest and his wines really capture that fresh, bright, aromatic quality that Zin is capable of . Very much Zinfandel for Pinot Lovers if there is such a thing, these are just fabulous wines that express the ripeness and power of Zinfandel with a rather light touch.
 
 
Lightly peppery and a little floral on the nose with very fresh red fruit that has an almost herbal, minty aspect. Bright acids on entry support fabulous red cherry and raspberry fruit. This is so  zesty with lovely concentration of fruit supported by soft ripe tannins. It's long, clear and edgy in the mouth with superb clarity to the fruit and nuanced tobacco and chocolate notes adding detail and complexity. There’s a gentle streak of oak that becomes apparent on the long finish though it’s just a fine accent note. 93pts
 
 
Classic Zin nose filled with fresh raspberry fruit framed by a little white chocolate, briar, pepper and a hint of bacon fat.  Elegant and aromatic in the mouth, this is built on a nice base of slightly austere tannins and fine acids supporting zesty red raspberry and blackberry fruit that has a slightly herbal edge. the oak come into play on the midpalate, adding a touch of spice and leading to a firm finish that shows a little currant notes. Bright and effusive in the mouth with  a little mineral edge, this is so pure and refreshing. 94pts
 
 
Same blend
 
Huge on the nose with layered spicy oak, musky and animal scents framing the darkly brooding fruit. Rich yet light and smooth on the palate with big citrus peel herbal freshness up front, followed by dark wild cherry and blackberry fruit. This has a huge bramble berry midpalate, with hints of cocoa, some white pepper, and some ivy adding freshness. Today it’s a bit tight and angular on the finish, but it delivers huge Zinfandel flavors on a large scaled but well balanced frame. 93pts
 
 
100% zin, valley floor in St Helena, 100 
 
Gorgeous on the nose, dark and sIghtly jammy raspberry fruit filled with nuanced oily seeds and a flourish of green herbs with a touch of vanilla adding depth. On entry this is big, a little chewy,and filled with dark raspberry and red curranty fruit. Zesty big and jammy in the mouth with powerful wild berry and fresh green herb note on the finish. There are lovely fine grained tannins here adding a little savory and a lightly chocolate edge to the fruit. This is just so fresh and zesty with a sage and almost minty accent on the backend that leads to a dark and chewy finish. 93pts
 
Bella - A Zinfandel specialist producing wines that can be pretty big and filled with dark fruit but at the same time they manage to retain a certain elegance and compliment their rich fruit flavors with a lot of soil driven and savory notes. The line-up is very consistent for the most part, though their full blown Block Ten bottling stands out from the pack in an explosively rich style that is just too much for me.
 
 
Candied dark fruit that’s a bit leathery and coffee toned greets the nose along with a nice oak note, nutty, cafe au lait, and gingery spiced. Big yet bright in the mouth with super fruit here, glassy and firm, hard candy like cherry and blackberry flavored with some cracked pepper spice and a little licorice accent note. The tannins are very well integrated and the nice acids drive the finish moderately long finish. This holds its alcohol seamlessly,with a supple, balanced feel. 91pts
 
 
A bit tight on the firm nose that shows a dry earthy edge to the sweet cherry and raspberry fruit. This shows off power and elegance in the mouth, decidedly red fruited with nice herbal freshness. The tannins are small, a little angular and balanced by decent acids supporting a somewhat dense and full midpalate. The firm finish turns richly black black fruited and slightly tree barky with spicy oak notes and a blue mineral edge. 91pts
 
 
This is spicy on the nose with perfumed oak tones and lovely nuanced toasted cumin and coriander accent to the core of dark, oily fruit. In the mouth this is surprisingly supple and slinky, and rich with a core of wild cherry and plummy fruit that remains very tight and almost chewy, dense but not weighty. This gives the impression of being a little sweet, with sweet toasty oak adding to that, though there is great clarity to the muscular, earthy fruit that drives the long finish. 92pts 
 
 
Very aromatic and floral on the nose which shows off  pretty, dusty soil, and steeped dry herbs aromas framing a core of bright sour cherry sour raspberry fruit. On entry this is bright, brambly and aromatic with huge Zin berry fruit. It’s a bit young and tight today with dusty tannins emerging in the mouth making this a bit sharp and angular today. The fruit does show fine persistence finishing with length and acid driven clarity. 91pts
 
 
Cola, sassafras, dark chocolate and even a touch of black olive emerge on the nose adding detail and complexity to the core of  blackcurrant and black cherry fruit. This is built on its acids, so clear and fresh in the mouth with tons of firm black fruit supported by herb, green anise seed and fennel notes followed by a long taut finish. This is very tense and powerful with great focus, and yet it is supple and already in a very nice spot. 92pts
 
 
Fairly marked by oak exhibiting aromas that are a little toasty and creamy with dark slightly jammy and very wild black fruit that shows some, dark mineral and root beer float top notes. Mouth filling, seamless and a bit dense, this is packed with RC cola inflected candied black cherry and blackberry fruit. Big and polished, this finishes with lightly spicy vanilla cream draped fruit. This is a bit of a bruiser and while it’s intense and rich I can’t say that I prefer it to the single vineyard wines. 91pts
 
 
Big aromatics greet the nose, all wooly and wild and filled with peppery spice and alcoholic heat. Big, a bit hot, rich and chewy and dense and meaty on the palate with dark stewy plums and some red fruit highlights, this is just too sweet and alcoholic for my palate.  85pts
 
 
Tight on the nose with slow to unfold aromas of chocolate, balsamic, sweet, fresh, blackberry and lovely slightly jammy black cherry fruit. Lush, juicy and dark on entry, this picks up a  creamy tone on the midpalate followed by raspberry, dried berry and slightly grapy flavors. Featuring super balance and a lovely tannic structure, this is a killer chocolate pairing wine. 92pts
 
Gary Farrell- Known as a  Pinot and Chardonnay producer, Gary Farrell has been producing these beautiful Zinfandels for years and somehow I’ve been fortunate to try many of them. Very much like a Talty Zin, though perhaps not quite as complex, these are elegant, fruit driven wines that are zesty and bright with a light, pretty feel to them. These are among the easiest Zins to drink in my experience and a bottle tends to disappear quickly.
 
 
Very pretty on the nose, with lots of cool fruit, plenty of oak as well but it's well balanced allowing the floral, spicy, crushed black raspberry and wild plum fruit to show very clearly. Very clean and taut on the palate, with no baby fat, in a clear nervous style. This is and fairly large scaled but elegant and tense with mouth watering acids and  fine grained tannins that build a bit on the long clear raspberry blackberry finish that shows a touch of watermelon freshness and not a hint of heat. 92pts
 
 
Darker on the nose than the Sonoma bottling with carob, meat, mint, and eucalyptus spice accenting the cool,earthy and powerful nose. This is not fruit driven. Much lighter on the palate than the nose would lead one to believe,. Dark, and muscular like a ballet dancer, this reveals lovely depth, the flavors like the nose run to the earthy, savory sided things with a bit of cracked pepper spice and mineral shadings framing the core of balsam scented wild blackberry fruit. This finishes firmly with real energy and a fine mineral note, and just a hint of wood tannin supporting fine crushed black currant fruit. 93pts
 
Carol Shelton- A Zinfandel specialist and the ‘most awarded winemaker in America” as well. The wines here tend to be on the bigger side, somewhat due to their origins with vineyards in Cucamonga as well as throughout Sonoma county and in Mendocino as well. Having many fruit sources means there is a bit less of a house style here as it seems that Carol Shelton tries to let the vines do most of the talking here. The results are balanced, and fruit driven though they still do seem to carry a noticable winemaking imprint. 
 
 
Deep briary nose a little poppy seeds, spice and black raspberry fruit with bitter chocolate shavings and coffee oak aromas.  A big wine with layers of flavors, bitter cherry, musky, wild flowers and jammy black currant all framed with a little nutty oak and some fine green edginess here as well. The tannins are noticeable, acids bright, both contributing to a little tactile and dusty feel in the mouth but this turns very focused and steely on the backend with cherry skin notes, and a little wild blackberry thing going on. A little chewy and raw and sure to improve. 90pts
 
 
Big jammy vanilla and licorice scented nose with lots of juniper accented wild berry fruit aromas. Fresh and 
zesty in the mouth. This is very well balanced with lots of fruit tannin supporting deep briary flavors. The clarity of fruit on the palate is surprising given the jammy aromas. This picks up lovely brushy chaparral inner mouth perfumes that lead to gorgeous red fruit with a little  lingonberry character on the finish, which does show a touch of heat. A little tannic and chewy but nicely done. 91pts
 
 
Creamy white chocolate and raspberry/cherry fruit lends this a softness on the nose with hint of wood spice framing the somewhat over-ripe fruit. Rich and powerful and ever so chewy on the palate with nice freshness to the coffee and herb tinged strawberry and black cherry preserves fruit. There’s lots of soil driven character on the palate with ripe tannins contributing some power to the briar wood, cocoa and wood spice flavors on the long, palate staining finish. 91pts
 
 
Dark earthy, mineral and balsamic on the nose with dark fruit and pressed floral accents. Rich and seamless on entry, this has fine tension in the mouth, a little dusty though with super depth on the palate and deeply steeped flavors, all blackberry and black curranty The  super fine yet firm tannins keep this firm and focused through the long finish which shows some blueberry jam notes a  dark assertive spice flavors. The oak is very well judged offering gentle support to the dark and mineral fruit flavors. 92pts
 
Elyse - Over in Napa Valley now, Elyse is a best known for their Cabernet though their Nero Misto (AKA mixed blacks) has always been one of my favorite wines from them. They also produce a small amount of Zinfandel from the famed Morisoli vineyard, better known for its Cabernet. This is classic Napa Zinfandel, big, lush and packed with ripe dark fruits. It’s a Cabernet vineyard and a Cabernet house so the wine is made in a bit of a Cabernet style, but if you like that style this is a wine to seek out.
 
 
This opens on the nose with a huge toast,  American oak and Zinfandel explosion Spicy and sweet with a coconut note, crushed wild berry, blackberry fruit and some violet accents. The texture is super ripe and rich but not weighty. Packed with rich fruit, all black raspberry and tannins are so finely knit together that they flesh out the mouth without being intrusive. I love the texture here and the rich raspberry fruit on the midpalate, gaining nice lift from the acids here and driving the wild cherry and spiced flavors across the long, earthy finish. A bit of a power packed, velvety Zinn but in its style it’s excellent. 93pts
 
Storybook Mountain- One of the classic producers of Napa Zinfandel, though the more I learn about Zin the more I am tempted to simply say mountain Zinfandel. Old school for the most part and still making Zins to age, these are gorgeous wines that fall a little outside of what has become the Zinfandel paradigm but will never fall out of fashion. Muscular, a bit tannic and yet lean and focused in the mouth they certainly stand out from the crowd. There is also a fabulous Viognier being produced here, one of the best I’ve had from California. A knock out as they say!
 
 
Bright Zin berry fruit on the nose is layered over nicely integrated wood tone. Muscular and still aromatically tight this slowly reveals gorgeous herb spiced framing notes on the nose offering added complexity. A little compressed in the mouth though with a lovely core of rich earthy balsamic black cherry, black raspberry fruit. There’s also lots of peppery spice in the mouth with a fairly tannic profile this is youthful and chewy, and with plenty of acid as well ensuring a long life and plenty of evolution in the bottle. Not your typical modern Zin, this is more structured and has more cut than almost any other. 91pts
 
 
A barrel selection with 10% viognier 
 
Lots of apricot and flowers greet the nose followed by peppery and spicy, red plummy fruit. Rather light bodied in the mouth, this offers lovely transparency, a while a little simple it is remarkably pure with such fine herbal spice inner mouth perfumes on the backend accenting the fresh red plum and berry flavors. This is so well put together with fine supporting acids and polished tannins, creating a taut, elegant framework with which the fruit can express itself. A unique expression of Zinfandel. 92pts
 
T-Vine - A specialist of old vine, of all things, and small lots at that. T-vine owns no vineyards, relying instead on long term contracts with some of the finest family farmers in the region. The wines are powerhouses, supple, velvety and polished with very rich and bold fruit. It’s about as much as I can take in a Zin but I can appreciate the style and the way the winery works with growers is worth paying attention to. 
 
 
Zin, petite. Carignane, malvasia
 
Oak Glade vineyard on the Silverado trail, just south of Stags Leap
 
A little 2010 pruny but still with a fresh plum and berry fruit and freshening up in the glass. There’s plenty of vanilla and bay leaf here, all over nutty base notes. While low and broad in the mouth this remains well balanced with a chewy feel. The flavors are very 2010, fresh yet roasted with peppery edges and figgy accents.  Nice firm slightly dry tannins help drive the long finish, which is earthy and a bit matte. A bit heavy handed perhaps. 88pts
 
 
Dark, oily and floral on the nose with some spicy seeds and a bit of smoky BBQ sauce framing sour plum. Smooth, rich and plus in the mouth with a touch of RS supporting explosive black berry fruit with plummy edges. This is just phenomenally rich, but not over extracted or chunky, not shy on the oak either but well integrated. there are plenty of soft tannins for support and fine acidity lending some brightness but this is all about easy power. It’s a giant pillow-top mattress. dep and surrounding you with softness. Honestly this is not my style but the appeal is undeniable. 92pts
 
 
Tight with lots of oak on the nose over complex aromas of plum jam,black earth, roasted nuts,black pepper, and fruit that’s a bit pruny. Tight on entry with fine balance, if fairly tannic, and the tannins are earthy and chewy in a dry way. There’s a nice core of black cherry fruit, and so much dirt, peppery, balsamic tones, and rocky mineral notes that one can’t help but be impressed . This is just massively constructed and if it all integrates well this could be a wow wine but today it’s more impressive for it’s size and sheer darkness. If this were a book it would be heart of Darkness. 92pts
 
Green and Red -  A Zinfandel specialist tucked up in a corner of Chiles Canyon just to the east of Napa Valley. The fruit for the Green and Red Zins comes from a variety of sites on their property including an impressively steep mountain top vineyard. My love of mountain Zin once again rears its head. These are lovely Zins, rich and powerful enough but never excessive and relying on wonderful balance and depth. Just happy Zins that are transparent and bright on the palate. 
 
 
5% and 5% petit and syrah
 
Cool and slightly autumnal on the nose with ripe gently tarry cherry fruit, huge forest floor, wild flower, and dry pine needles base notes. Old school,  small dark berry fruit, a little firm tannin a whisper of herb, big dark cherry fruit all unfold on the palate in such a gentle way one might forget how much Zin has changed over the years if it weren’t for examples like this. Polished rich and well integrated, this is gutsy and powerful but not overripe a little Xmas cinnamon spice from the oak accenting the fresh fruit on the palate and leading to a clean licorice tinged finish that reveals lovely basalt mineral base notes.This is not going to wow you, you’ll just quietly finish the bottle and wonder why it’s not packaged in liter bottles. 92pts
 
 
Offering up a sweeter,  spicier nose than the basic Chiles Valley bottling, this is more floral and high toned, with crushed mineral and juniper accents framing gorgeous raspberry and plum flavors topped with a whisper of oak smoke.  Light, zesty and fresh on the palate, this delivers lots of transparent raspberry fruit framed with subtle herbal accents. It’s so clean fresh and pure if a little a simple, and finishes with great persistence to the red berry fruit.  Happy wine. 91pts
 
 
Wooly and animal on the nose with fudgy, dark earthy, leathery dark cherry fruit. Seamless and richly fruited, almost sweet on entry with fine sporting dusty tannins. This is angular and youthful with fresh black cherry and blackberry flavors that pick up a lovely bitter cherry note on the mid-palate before warm baking spices flood the finish. Powerful yet elegantly balanced, this has a lovely core of acid keeping a powerful wine light on its feet. A little angular yet so transparent, this is super today and should improve. 93pts
 
Dashe - One of the top producers of Zinfandel and a winery where the basic Dry Creek Valley Zin is as good or better than most premium bottlings. Just terrific wines, nervy and complex with great tension in the mouth and purity of flavor. These are among the most complete Zins in the marketplace with richness, freshness and structure that is rare to find with Zinfandel. While each of his three single vineyard Zins are uniquely distinctive his L’Enfant Terrible, harvested early and aged in foudre is one the most fun wines made in California. The only Zinfandel that really makes one think of Cru Beaujolais, supposedly a style of Zin popular in the past, this is joy in a bottle. Sadly the L’Enfant terrible Grenache might be even better.  The late harvest Zin produced here is another standout and certainly among the best of it’s type.
 
 
This shows some carbonic aromas right off the bat followed by earthy black spiced black raspberry and cherry fruit. Just a superb texture, so bright, clear, fresh and precise with a little stemmy tannin adding some edginess to the slightly creamy black currant and wild red berry fruit. This is high toned and packed with red fruit, it’s light but not simple with a little stern tannin keeping everything focused right through the long finish. I’m not sure how one scores this since it’s such an atypical Zinfandel but for sheer pleasure I’ll give it 92pts.
 
 
Tight, earthy and pure on the nose with beautiful spice notes, a little peppery and licorice, and a gently smoky note adding savory detail to the core of cherry fruit. There’s almost a candied herb thing going on here. Light easy going, and  all raspberry and strawberry fruit on entry supported by soft tannins and  juicy acids lending this a silky smooth mouthfeel. Not a powerhouse, just supple and fresh Zinfandel with lovely spice notes on the moderately long finish. 90pts
 
 
Tight, shiny and black fruited on the nose with reticent buttered herb and  inky, blue fruit aromas emerging from the glass. This is dark and muscular, rich with a balsamic framed core of black cherry and red currant fruit that already shows incredible purity. Already quite polished in the mouth this has lovey acids and some slightly chewy yet ripe tannins that drive the long, tight big black cherry juice flavors on the long finish. This is very young but already shows such brightness and vivid flavors. 92pts
 
 
Opening with a huge nose of crushed blackberry, green balsam spice notes, and gorgeous floral accents, this smells terrific.  Complex earthy fruit greets the palate with a rich, firm texture to the evolving chocolatey, tart cherry flavors that get added lift from the herbal freshness here. There's almost a little chinato character here, complex, earthy and herbal along with layers of thyme, crushed flowers and red currant and raspberry fruit on the palate. One of the most vibrant and energetic Zins I've tasted recently. 
This just has stunning purity of fruit with some power behind it, compelling complexity and superb cut on the palate. Just  terrific Zinfandel. I’m always disappointed when I remember that this comes from relatively young vines. It’s a magical vineyard. 95pts
 
 
50 yo vines in Geyserville
 
Deep, earthy, and sharply mineral on the nose with crushed toasty black currant fruit, black raspberry fruit accented by notes of graham cracker and a little peppery spice. Deep and earthy in the mouth as well with real richness but a lean and firm character supported by super ripe tannins and fine, bright acidity. Upright in the mouth and structured like a skyscraper with lovely Zin berry fruit framed with brambly accents. Structured and powerful but superbly balance, with the structural framework  just wrapped up in clear black cherry and black raspberry fruit. Unusual to find a wine with such height and breadth, yet one that is transparent in the mouth. 94pts
 
 
Deep, savory and mineral on the nose with slow to emerge notes of ink and carob. This smells old bony and dusty and firm, with a flourish of licorice and old books aromas. Lively and clear on the palate with boysenberry and citrus clementine, a little chocolate covered clementine flavors layered over a core of cedary, burnished cherry fruit. this grows in intensity in the mouth, sort of like a bouncing ball in reverse, gaining height and impact. Gaining chewy depth and power, and turning savory on the long finish, which shows excellent complexity with nuanced blue fruit and inky flavors on the long finish. Another wine with great cut but on sense the alcohol here as it adds a little sweetness to the palate.  93pts
 
 
This just explodes on the nose with  dried fruit, sour plum, leathery, tobacco, and fresh crushed black fruit aromas that gain some lift from the VA here. Sweet enough but balanced, allowing the gorgeous blackberry, black raspberry and black cherry jam flavors to fill the mouth. The balance of fruit and acid here is spot on, the fruit is so perfectly ripe yet it retains lovely intensity and thrust without much puniness. There’s a subtle chocolate nuance on the long finish as well. Another terrific wine from Dashe and while sweeties are often too much for my palate this is in a very nice spot. 92pts

12 Top Zinfandel October 2013

1.
Dashe Cellars Zinfandel Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Valley (2010)
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2.
Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel Ancient Field Blend (2010)
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3.
Ridge 'Lytton Springs' (2011)
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4.
Talty Winery Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Estate William Talty Vineyards (2009)
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5.
Seghesio Zinfandel Monte Rosso Sonoma Valley (2011)
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6.
Green & Red Tip Top Vineyard Zinfandel (2010)
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7.
Elyse Zinfandel Napa Valley Morisoli Vineyard (2009)
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8.
Carol Shelton Wines Zinfandel Rockpile Rocky Reserve Rockpile Ridge Vineyard (2009)
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9.
Gary Farrell Zinfandel Bradford Mountain (2010)
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10.
Bella Vineyards & Wine Caves Zinfandel Big River Ranch (2010)
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11.
Rockpile Winery Zinfandel Rockpile Jack's Cabin (2011)
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12.
Storybook Mountain Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley Eastern Exposures (2011)
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Mentioned in this article

Comments

  • Hi. Have you heard of C.G. DiArie Vineyards? I would like to hear about them if anyone has any experience with them. Thanks.

    Nov 05, 2013 at 11:23 AM


  • Snooth User: Mccz
    536799 3

    Ever heard of as Robles? Wow!

    Nov 05, 2013 at 3:31 PM


  • I have been to DiArie Vineyards about two years ago. They do have quite a few good zins.

    Nov 05, 2013 at 3:45 PM


  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 2,876

    I've said it elsewhere: That Seghesio Rockpile is from a vineyard that produces some great Zins. They are not allowed to vineyard designate it (only the owner of the property has SVD privileges on his grapes), but it is single vineyard. And now that Seghesio has been sold, the contracts have terminated and that wine will no longer be available. So buy the 2011 (and maybe there is a 2012 in the pipe) because you will never see it again. At $35, it's a relative steal--the other bottling from that vineyard will be selling for 7-10 more.

    Nov 05, 2013 at 3:54 PM


  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 5,612

    I have had a few DiArie wines and they are darned good. Snooth Forum regulars will confirm that I am a Zinfandel bigot. However, I think that the best DiArie that I have tried was a Barbera.

    Nov 05, 2013 at 7:40 PM


  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 2,876

    DiArie is also, from what I hear, a really nice guy. He comes down to Oakland to do tastings, but I've never managed to get to those.

    One thing not mentioned in the article: The Dashe Enfant Terrible used to be made with no sulfites added during bottling. So it was volatile and had to be drunk young, hence the name and also the style. Don't know if it is still done that way, as I haven't had it in a bunch of years. And that Lily Hill is my favorite Bella, to be sure.

    Nov 05, 2013 at 7:51 PM


  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 5,612

    2nd Comment. As a big fan of the Ridge Lytton Springs bottlings, I was impressed with your opinion of the 2011, Greg. I was really disappointed with the 2010. So, I guess I'll start stocking up on the 2011.

    Also, I guess I should give a shout out for the Southern California wine--the Carol Shelton Cucamonga Valley. About a year and a half ago, we were dining with a friend from North Carolina and saw that on the list. I really do not recall what vintage it was, but I thought it would be neat to try a local wine. A total fruit bomb. I was really disappointed. However, I'll keep an eye out for this 2010

    Nov 05, 2013 at 8:28 PM


  • Snooth User: BGBGBG
    1386177 8

    Did you even go anywhere near Paso Robles? Only some of the finest Zin I've ever had.

    Nov 05, 2013 at 10:14 PM


  • Snooth User: ddingley
    395920 5

    Nothing from Amador here, unless I missed it somewhere. That is a great, historical region with vines going back to the Gold Rush and a great value ratio as they have remained affordable. The best vineyard in my experience is Deaver who makes their own limited bottlings and sells to a few others, notably Montevina D'ell Oro.

    Nov 05, 2013 at 10:24 PM


  • Snooth User: Mccz
    536799 3

    So many great wineries in Paso Robles, where grapes are often sourced for award-winning wineries in (you guessed it), Napa Valley!

    True, many of them in Paso are embracing the Rhone Rush (and why not?), but the region is still much about Zinfandel, and they do it well! Check out the Zinfandel Festival, March 14-16 in 2014, but the best time is year-round, when you can more leisurely chat with the winemakers.

    And bookmark Paso Robles Magazine to download (free) monthly issues for all the happenings. This weekend is all about the Paderewski Festival with wines, a vineyard tour, classical and jazz music performances by some amazing world-renown artists.

    Paderewski was a brilliant composer, pianist, and former prime minister to an independent Poland. He grew grapes in Paso on over 2,000 acres and really kick-started the region for his Gold medal Zinfandels. Today, Epoch Estate Wines has resurrected Paderewski's old vineyard and also purchased the historic York Mountain Winery. Their wines fly out the door as soon as they're released...they're that good!

    Nov 05, 2013 at 10:47 PM


  • Snooth User: ubla
    1043713 7

    My favorites are Turley and Klinkerbrick by far!

    Nov 06, 2013 at 8:53 AM


  • Snooth User: sunnyg
    1198458 38

    I agree. Turley is the best! Will have to try Klinkerbrick. Thanks for the tip!

    Nov 06, 2013 at 1:04 PM


  • Snooth User: lodiwino
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    222318 82

    GDP - you gotta have at least 1 Lodi Zin in that line up...Klinker, Fields, McCay, M2 - some beauties at some great price points

    Nov 06, 2013 at 1:23 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 204,845

    Fair enough folks. There are great Zins produced in Mendocino, Lodi, Paso and the Sierra Foothills. The greatest concentration are still in Sonoma, and those are some of my favorites. But, I'll make a point of planning on a trip next year that visits the rest of the state in search of great Zins!

    Nov 06, 2013 at 3:58 PM


  • Snooth User: SGD
    610727 21

    Had some great examples of Plavac Mali made by Dubokovic in Hvar, Croatia. Plavac Mali is said to be the earliest form of what is now known as zin

    Nov 06, 2013 at 4:56 PM


  • Snooth User: mrwino
    1279683 64

    Been there...Drank them! You're right GDP; Sonoma (Dry Creek) is the Disneyland of Zins. But you failed to recognize two of the top producers of the juice. Mazzocco (a block from The Ridge) and Wilson Wineries’ are the TOPS in my book, and also that of this past year's Harvest Fair, garnering over 40 Best of Class, Double Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze awards. Winemakers Antoine Favero at Mazzocco and Diane Wilson at Wilsons (International Women's Winemaker of the Year a few years ago), do the best job in crafting their wines that I've tasted anywhere...bar none! Another great producer in the Valley is Tom and Bruce Cousins Armida Winery. The "Tina's Block" Zin from Tom and Tina Maple's vineyards (arguably the best Zin vineyard in California), is a stand out...and sells out FAST! Also, don't forget Martinelli's great juices, J&L and Jackass. A couple of the better Zins I've found in the Sierra's belongs to Terra-Rouge/Easton Winery (Check out the cover of September's WE), and Bella Grace's Old Vine Zin. Easton also produces some of the best Syrah's around. Lodi and Paso are both great Zin farms. A couple you might try are Klinkerbrick's Old Ghost and Michael-David's Gluttony in Lodi. Two very different wines but both are simply fantastic. I’ve been to all but 17 wineries in the Dry Creek/ Amador/El Dorado and Lodi areas, which I’ll knock off a couple of those this weekend. GDP, if you need a traveling partner on your next road trip, I'll be glad to navigate!

    Nov 07, 2013 at 6:05 PM


  • Snooth User: outthere
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    324443 3,835

    "Had some great examples of Plavac Mali made by Dubokovic in Hvar, Croatia. Plavac Mali is said to be the earliest form of what is now known as zin"

    Zinfandel is not the same variety as the Croatian variety Plavac Mali as stated above. It is, rather, the same variety as the Croatian variety Crljenak kastelanski, which has also been called Pribidrag and Tribidrag. And it's the same variety as Primitivo. Many names for the same grape variety. (Plavac Mali is actually the progeny of Crljenak Kastelanski and another Croatian variety called Dobricic.)

    Nov 08, 2013 at 1:19 PM


  • Snooth User: outthere
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    324443 3,835

    My comment above cites UC Davis Geneticist Carole Meredith who was the person who genetically DNA fingerprinted Zinfandel to Crljenak Kastelanski.

    Nov 08, 2013 at 1:24 PM


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