Looking beyond the usual suspects for quality, value, and variety.
When we talk about Zinfandel we often tend to focus on those most familiar to us. Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, Amador County, and even Napa get their fair share of attention, though just as often we tend to gloss over some terrific wine producing regions. I’m sure that on the whole my coverage of Zinfandel this year will be equally lopsided so today I want to begin this summer’s Zinfandel exploration by focusing on Mendocino and Lake Counties.
An odd choice you say? Why not at all would be my reply. In fact my epiphany Zinfandel was none other than the 1981 Edmeades DuPratt Vineyard Zinfandel from Mendocino county. What a wine is was! Spicy and dark, packed with joyous fruit and though it was well structured it was not heavy on the palate with cascading notes of earth, spice, herb and old wood. It was a rich yet refined wine, and my first case purchase of Zinfandel. I still have a bottle left, though it is in all likelihood better today as a touchstone than a wine, though I should probably just go ahead and drink it. I can always keep the bottle.
Anyway, we’re here to talk about today’s Mendocino, and adjacent Lake county Zinfandel. Located to the north of Napa and Sonoma counties, these two wine backwaters of yore have evolved into fairly important vineyard locations. Lake county is well known today, though mostly for Cabernet Sauvignon and to a lesser extent Sauvignon Blanc while Mendocino, and in particular Anderson valley has emerged as a source of fine premium Pinot Noir. So what can we make of the Zins from these regions today?
For starters they are relatively well priced, which is always part of the wine buying calculus. Particularly if you might be buying wines for a group, say a summer BBQ for which most of the wines are ideally suited. And then there is the reasoning behind the pricing. Few people are aware of mendocino Zins in particular, and how stunningly good they used to be in the 1970s and 80s. The nadir of Zinfandel came about soon after the finest example of mendo Zin were produced, so not much planting has occurred since those days. Double bonus! We’re also talking about a lot of old vine vineyards!
As far as the style of these wines go, it’s interesting because we tend to think of Mendocino and Lake counties, being north of Napa-noma as being cooler regions. That is notably true along the coast and say in Anderson valley, but as you move inland you’ll find temperatures are just as hot as in the counties to the south. Now that’s not a bad thing, Zin does enjoy a good hot summer after all. Of course being north, even just a bit, does help to cool things down late in the season and that’s probably where these wines find their strength. A bit more brightness, a touch more acid and firmer tannins supporting the fruit and alcohol make these Zins a little less compact and chewy on the palate. Not that these are shy wines, far from it, just that they can be a bit more elegant than some of their compatriots.
Lake county is inland from Mendocino, and thus a bit warmer. It’s also a relatively high altitude region for vines in this part of the country, with most of the vineyards laying over 1500 feet in elevation. The results in a bit of an intense, warm, and somewhat abbreviated growing season that produces pretty lush, powerful and fruit forward wines. In this neck of the wood many vineyards are the result of more recent plantings, which while not as sexy as those old-vines, do have their advantages. Mainly properly chosen clones, vineyard orientation, and vine density that allow growers to better design a vineyard to fit its site.
Of course today winemakers are able to craft just about any type of Zin from any region they are farming. That has always been one of the advantage Zinfandel seems to have over other wines. You can produce a rose, Beaujolais style, Claret style, Zin berry fruit bomb, or dessert wine with Zinfandel. Today’s popular styles tend to be on the fruit forward side of things, though slowly I think we are seeing a retrenchment from that posture. It’s a slow process of course. No one changes their style completely over night, and we only have one chance to get things right each year but I think that Mendocino and Lake county are already getting it right with Zin. I expect that we will continue to see many fruit forward and slightly jammy examples emerging from Lake county but those old vine vineyards in Mendocino are proving irresistible to many of our Zinfandel masters today and my hope is that the wines coming down the pike will easily challenge the greatest examples of the 1970s and 80s. is it time for a Zinfandel renaissance? You bet your sweet bippy it is!
And just to close the circle. Jed Steele of Steele wines made that 1981 Edmeades DuPratt Zin I loved so much. Glad to be able to try the combination of winemaker and site once again, and I’m looking forward to many more examples coming down the road from this esteemed vineyards and those like it in both Mendo and Lake counties!
Some recently tasted Mendocino and Lake County Zinfandel
Intense and spicy on the nose with jammy black cherry and blackberry fruit topped with nuanced blueberry aromas and a nice base of wood spice and sweetness. Big, round and fairly red fruited in the mouth, this remains admirably tense on the palate with nice spice, violet, and black cherry flavors. There is some wood to resolve on the modest finish, making this quite nice if a bit firm. 91pts
A little oaky and herbal one the nose with a black cherry blackberry profile that is pure and intense. Rich, chewy and fairly powerful in the mouth with lovely fruit that shows a gentle sweetness and a streak of vanilla that drives through the lively and long finish. This is perhaps a bit simple but very attractive in a lush way. 91pts
Super spicy nose on the nose which shows a little caramel oak influence and candied cherry aromas. Rather tense on entry and firm. even a bit lean with lots of cranberry and sour cherry fruit supported by light tannins and bit of wood spice on the finish, which shows modest length. Today this is understated, classic old Claret style Zinfandel with hints of pepper and spice slowly adding detail to the fresh fruit and cedar accents. This should improve with age. 89pts
Dark and slightly earthy with blackberry fruit on the fresh nose which shows a little bit of spice, a hint of black pepper and a suggestion of dried herb. Nicely focused on entry with an attractive, slightly earthy bramble berry palate that leads to a briary finish with lingering sweet raspberry/cherry tone. 88pts
A little tight on the nose and only gently fruity with mineral and oak base notes under subtle herb and blackcurrant aromas. Tense and a little spicy up front with fine clarity on the palate. This exhibits good transparency and clarity in the mouth with slightly jammy by not terribly intense fruit. Nice length and focus on the finish which shows off persistent earthy mulberry fruit. The oak is well done here and this shows an intriguing blend of power and lightness. 88pts
Jammy vanilla and lime leaf wrapped aromas of dark berry fruit greet the nose with lots of briar, vanilla, and freshly sawn cedar aromas it is quite oaky. In the mouth this is round and supple, with lots of subtle acidity keeping things fresh. There’s some lovely black berry fruit here, paired with some spicy green peppercorn notes and pencil shavings all leading to a modest finish that is clipped by wood tannins. Plenty of wine but you have to love the wood. 88pts
A blend of 44% Zinfandel, 39% Syrah, 9% Petite Sirah, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon
Lots of earthy aromas greet the nose with hints of fresh herb and rare beef accenting the core of dark berry fruit that is topped with gently floral oak perfumes. Lovely, tense and fresh on entry with mineral and oak accented red fruit, and bitter cherry flavors. Supple fruit tannins and a touch of wood tannin add nice support through the finish though the acid is a touch low here making this feel a bit weighty on the palate. 87pts
Oak, lavender, wild cherry and clay soil tones come together on the gentle nose. Rough and plump in the mouth but not that large scaled with creamy milk chocolate and subtle cigar box accents adding complexity on the midpalate. Very easy to drink with mostly sweet wood spice on the modest finish. 87pts
A Zinfandel blend with small amounts of Grenache, Petite Verdot and Barbera from Shannon Ridge Winery.
Lovely on the nose with floral and citrus pith aromas over a base of rusty red fruit. A Iittle plump in the mouth and with some obvious sweetness supporting the cranberry, cherry and herb tinged flavors but this retains great freshness and makes for a lovely little bistro styled wine. perfect for burgers on the grill. 85pts