With the shift to fall in full swing, it’s time to start looking at some specific wines. While I made some general recommendations in my recent Types of Wine article
, I thought now would be a good idea to see what’s on the shelves.
Even though it’s getting cooler I’m still not ready to surrender the summer and embrace full-throttle wines, though I’m ready to take my first step. I’ve chosen a case of middleweight Zinfandels to start out with. These are wonderful wines: bright; full of spicy, juicy fruit; and just the right size to enhance an autumn supper or two.
Just to set the record straight: when I’m speaking of Zinfandel I’m talking about red Zin, not that I have anything against white Zin, per se. In fact, while I don’t drink white Zin it’s a very important chapter in the story of Zinfandel. Not only does white Zin act as a sort of a gateway wine (in a good way of course), offering many people their first pleasurable wine experience, but it has also played a role in the renaissance of the great old vine Zins that are an important touchstone for the California wine industry.
You see, the popular explosion of white Zinfandel happened to coincide with the red version falling out of favor. In fact, the millions of bottles of white Zin produced over the years were originally made with a fair amount of fruit from old, historic vineyards. Fortunately for us, selling fruit to make white Zin was profitable enough to allow many growers to resist the temptation to grub up those old, gnarly vines in favor of planting a more commercially viable crop!
So, not only is white Zin responsible for many drinkers’ first forays into wine, but it’s also responsible for many of the greatest old-vine Zins around. Let’s face it, the old-vine Zins of Sonoma County are among the finest wines around and, to me, really represent America’s iconic wine -- a wine second to none and incomparable, mainly because they just don’t grow Zin in too many other places. And I’ve heard the Primitivo argument before, but it’s just not the same thing. Different clones, different terroir, wines sometimes similar, but the truth is a great California Zin is one of the greatest wines ever produced in the USA!
Minty and low-key at first, with some passion fruit tones over wild cherry fruit, with nice framing notes of ash, roasted herbs, preserved lemons, and cigar wrapper. This is fantastic in the mouth: smooth, supple, and polished, with excellent intensity for wild berry fruit supported by soft tannins and integrated acids. This needs some air to really get going but, once it begins to open, it reveals layers of earthy, toasty notes with flourishes of herb and spice. The finish offers up lovely fruit, with perhaps an edge of pomegranate that keeps pumping away. This is gorgeous Zinfandel, richly flavored but with great reserve. Love the texture and length of this wine. 94pts
2007 Scott Harvey Vineyard 1869 Amador County Old Vine Zinfandel 14.5%
Damp tobacco and deep briary tones pop from the glass over a base of spicy, fragrant red berry fruits, with accent notes of red currant, root beer, violet pastille, a very perfumy root tone, and a touch of Necco wafers. Rich yet transparent in the mouth, with wonderful, intense depth of just-ripe fruit. This is decidedly in the red fruit end of the spectrum, with all the spice tones well buried. There are gentle shadings of slightly medicinal herbs, oak spice notes and a touch of hibiscus tea here. The finish is a bit sneaky, a touch hot and seemingly dropping off before returning with a note of gentle spice and raspberry fruit. Really well-behaved in the mouth and very much in an old-world style, if there is such a thing for Zinfandel! 93pts
Mocha, clove, pine cone, cigarette ash, and peach on the nose add detail to the slightly herbal, spicy raspberry fruit. Bright and silky in the mouth, with a light spice edge to the red raspberry and slightly red currant fruit flavors. The backend shows a bit more richness, but this remains a bright, even slightly austere, style of Zinfandel. Harkens back the Claret style of Zinfandel of the 1970s. It’s pretty subtle, yet complex and balanced. I like it. 92pts
Very dark and brooding on the nose, with hints of espresso, violet, sandalwood, and chocolate all framing the blackberry fruit. This enters the mouth with a rather silky feel. There are actually plenty of fine-grained tannins -- and good, integrated acidity -- that make themselves known on the mid-palate, but the rich yet restrained fruit does a good job of concealing them. The fruit is full of wild berry and intense spice tones, with a sharp nutmeg/mace element on the mid-palate and a touch of licorice on the intense black raspberry/black currant, briar, and lightly minty finish -- which is quite long, if somewhat tannic at this point. The fruit persistence is impressive though. Give this a year to settle down. Great Zin! 92pts.
Big dill, vanilla and candied red cherry on the nose, with a touch of caramel and some nuanced white pepper. Nice feel right upfront with good acids and supple tannins -- in fact, the acid gives a very appealing sour red cherry/raspberry tone to the fruit. The fruit shows excellent purity and, while it is a bit simple up front, it gains a nice touch of gentle wood spice on the long, juicy finish. Very bright and delicious! 91pts
Lovely aromatics on the nose, with black cherry, herb, sandy soil tones and a touch of licorice backed up by light vanilla and ground coffee notes. This is big and rich in the mouth, just oozing rich dark cherry and almost boysenberry fruit on the palate, with a light frame of toasty oak and some gentle black spice top notes and hint of strawberry seeds that segue into a dried strawberry tone on the cocoa- and caramel-laced finish. This is a lot of Zinfandel: full-throttle but not over the top. It’s really well-balanced, with a nice ripeness to the tannins and good acidity throughout. 91pts
This is rather seductive on the nose, with slow-to-emerge layered notes of pressed flowers, French oak, vanilla, herb, and clay over red currant, cherry, and black raspberry fruit. Full on entry yet almost soft, with real suppleness and depth that reveals a nice touch of earth and mineral spice under the slightly creamy black raspberry and black cherry fruit. This is not a particularly large Zin, but it does fill the mouth with lovely fruit and assertive yet integrated spice notes. The long finish reveals the subtleties of the nose with wonderful citrus peel, herb, and spice tones over a final of mulberry fruit. 91pts
Cool and precise on the nose, with focused, restrained notes of cedar, bramble, red currant and wild berry fruit, with a hint of peach. On entry this is a touch matte, very broad in the mouth with succulent acids and fine, dusty tannin. The fruit is fresh with deep notes of red cherry and that slightly astringent edge of red currant, topped with gentle hints of vanilla, a touch of herb, and a hint of tobacco leaf that turns a touch spicier, like mace, on the long finish. The finish really pops with hints of mulberry and a long, tree bark tone on the finale. 91pts
Dark and earthy on the nose, with hints of cracked pepper, walnuts, vanilla, blackberry preserves, and a perfumy floral edge. Very finely balanced and polished with a soft, juicy feel in the mouth. The flavors are closely layered, slowly revealing notes of coriander, cola, dark fruit, dried figs, backing spice, and red raspberry fruit. The finish is light and about as elegant as one can expect from a Zin, ending on a lovely spiced currant note. A very autumnal, holiday-spiced Zin. 90pts
Dusty and earthy on the nose, with a bit of butterscotch up front followed by hard candy black fruits and cream vanilla. A little tight in the mouth and almost small, but with good depth of flavor. This could use some time to relax, as it does slowly open in the mouth and reveals rather deep fruit, broad and with nice supporting tannins. The finish has a slightly wild hard candy quality and good length. This really reminds me of Claret-styled Zins of the past: refined, almost elegant, not in-your-face yet eminently appealing. 90pts
Spicy on the nose, with a touch of herb and leather nuances over slightly gamy black raspberry/ black cherry fruit with a nice touch of spice. Smooth on entry, round but not fat, with good purity to the sweet, ripe black berry fruit. There is a nice brambly spice tone across the mid-palate along with a touch of vanilla. Finishes with a nice spicy lift to the blackberry fruit and a long briar tone. Solid, balanced style of Zin that may not wow people but showcases the best of the grape well. 89pts
A bit fumy at first, then this settles down into a downright peppery groove with spicy blackberry fruit, a hint of licorice, and some toasty grilled meat undertones. This shows some lovely polish in the mouth, with some fairly noticeable wood tannins lurking just beneath the surface of the blackberry fruit. Yes, it’s big and full of fruit, but that fruit is really fresh and ripe without any hint of over-ripeness. The fruit is framed with notes of cocoa powder and lightly toasty oak with a hint of licorice rounding out the palate. The finish shows a bit of heat and could be a bit longer, but packs in some nice red fruit pomegranate character. All in all, a very solid Zin. 89pts
A little buttery on the nose, with streaks of vanilla and toasted coconut over lightly briary blackberry fruit. There’s a nice earthy edge to the nose and a softly cedary underlay. This opens with really fresh black raspberry fruit and nice acids that keep the rich fruit fresh and lively. There is a slightly liquory quality on the mid-palate and a touch of wood tannin that appears, but this is all about pretty pure fruit with a hint of white pepper and dried orange peel accenting the red berry and spicy notes on the moderately long finish. 89pts
Big and bold on the nose, with blackberry pie fruit, wood spice tones, deep brambly background tones, with nice pepper and herb tones adding complexity. Great fruit on the entry, with soft tannins and real depth and purity to the slightly liquory plum and olallieberry fruit of the mid-palate. This shows nice balance with unobtrusive structural elements and a moderate finish with a bit more jammy fruit. 89pts
Dark cocoa-tinged fruit with some raw wood, American oak, and vanilla. Nicely rich in the mouth, with plenty of dusty tannins but enough fruit and acidity to keep things balanced. The fruit is a bit raw, and spicy with a nice cracked pepper edge in the mouth. This really holds its alcohol exceptionally well and has fresh fruit tones and no sense of over-ripeness in the mouth. The finish shows lovely fruit, a touch of jammy strawberry, and solid length. 89pts
Candied and a bit rubbery on the nose, with notes of earth, black pepper, and beef jerky. Very smooth on entry, really well-balanced in the mouth with lovely raspberry and briar fruit tones on the mid-palate. The structure here is evident, but not intrusive, with enough acid and tannin to give this a solid texture in the mouth. There are nice layers of spice that never cover the fruit and a moderately long finish that shows lovely purity and length. This is very solid Zin. 89pts
Dark and earthy on the nose, with scents of toasty oak, forest floor, and spicy, minty menthol-raspberry fruit greeting the nose. A pretty focused wine built on a spine of acid with very soft tannins offering support. The fruit is tightly focused and ripe, but not over the top, with real black raspberry purity across the mid-palate but then the alcohol begin to stick out a bit. There are nice stemmy, herbal notes on the backend that vie for attention on the moderate finish. This is fairly tight at this point and, while the wine is a bit hot, it may very well improve a bit with time in the cellar. 88pts
Quite fruity on the nose, with notes of candied wild cherry and black raspberry fruit topped with fragrant floral tones and a notes of chocolaty oak. Super-fine and polished on entry with a real silky feel. This offers up pure, lightly spicy black raspberry fruit with a briary edge and fairly glides across the palate. The finish is moderately long and continues to offer wonderful purity of fruit with just a hint of tannin offering a nice bit of mouthgrab on the finale. 88pts
72% Zinfandel, 18% Cabernet, 9% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc
This offers up a touch of eucalyptus and mint over dark cocoa and licorice-tinged black fruits. There’s a touch of pencil shavings as well as something vaguely smelling like antiseptic. In the mouth this is taut and bright, with an overlay of dark cocoa-tinged fruit over nice, bright red fruit tones. The finish shows some of the minty, antiseptic tones on the nose and they do extend on to the moderately long finish. This has a rather refined, almost lush feel, and a rather interesting palate profile, but it is an outlier among these wines. 88pts
Lots of vanilla and some dill on the nose, with some toasty marshmallow edges and black fruit lurking. This is really fresh upfront: light and bright with raspberry fruit and some nice brambly background tones. Really feels nice and fresh in the mouth, with a moderately long finish that shows off a nice meaty tone and a lingering hint of vanilla. Very bright, red-fruited and fun. 87pts
A bit subtle on the nose, but with plenty of vanilla-laced sweet brambly candied berry and black plum fruit with a touch of hoisin sauce. This is lightweight in the mouth: balanced and fresh with slightly low intensity red berry fruit that does have nice purity. It’s a balanced wine with good length and refreshing acids that make it easy to drink and a good partner at the dinner table. 87pts
Lightly aromatic on the nose, a bit meaty and a bit tarry with woodsy oak notes and light red fruit, a bit of vanilla. Medium-full on entry, then a bit thin but round, with nice raspberry flavors and a touch of earth and cocoa, in an easy-going style that finishes nicely, if slightly jammy, but very red fruited and spicy red licorice/red hots-toned, and with good length. 86pts
This opens with big aromas of toasty oak, dried herb, and slightly candied raspberry fruit. On the palate this shows very much more complexity, with that same slightly candied raspberry tone accented by notes of licorice, black peppery spice, and backing spice. This is fairly restrained, but holds a lot of splintery wood tannin, which can be off-putting to some. On the finish the oak is firmly in control and clips the fruit, leaving the relatively high alcohol prominent. 86pts
This is deep and funky on the nose, with sweet and sour plums, black pepper spices, and a pronounced carob note. Round, big, and soft in the mouth with a somewhat unusually savory array of flavors. There is some fish sauce thing going on here along with the usual dark, jammy, earthy fruit. This also has some lurking vegetal, banana leaf qualities on the mid-palate that lead to a slightly herbal tone on the modest, earthy, dried figgy finish. Ultimately the dark fruit does get the upper hand, but those unusual elements remain lurking. 86pts
Lightly scented with hints of orange blossoms, raspberries, a bit of toasted marshmallow, and some vanilla. Really bright on entry, this is a lighter styled Zin with good structure. The tannins are a bit stiff but refreshing and the acid quite brisk, giving this a lively feel in the mouth and really highlighting the red quality of the fruit that shows raspberries and a touch of watermelon. The finish is a bit rustic, but has good length and hints of tea and spices offsetting the burnished cherry fruit. 86pts
Milk chocolate, candied raspberry, cinnamon and sweet pipe tobacco on the nose. Kind of sweet on entry, lots of fruit, and a touch of bitterness adding some relief from the rather intense raspberry fruit. This is a bit tight in the mouth, and fairly noticeable wood tannins give this a slightly gritty feeling and add their flavor to the palate. The finish is more of the same. This comes off as a bit clumsy, and a bit hot, but finishes with more creamy milk chocolate and red fruits. 86pts
A touch candied on the nose, but with good varietal character, dark sweet cherry tones, and a touch briary with a lightly spicy, autumnal top note. On entry this is rather rich, with a touch of sweetness accenting the chocolate edge to the dark cherry fruit. There’s nice acid support and just barely a hint of tannins across the mid-palate, which shows good depth of fruit. The finish is quite fruity, perhaps a touch medicinal with hints of licorice and menthol, but also fairly long, driven by the touch of residual sugar. Simple and a bit obvious, but fine for easy drinking. 83pts
A subdued nose with soft warm black berry fruit, a hit of licorice and a balsamic vinegar note. This is very soft in the mouth, easy drinking styled with a bit of RS (residual sugar) giving this a particularly fruity entry. It gains more depth in the mouth, with the black licorice found on the nose and maybe a touch of mint, before turning meaty and fairly drying on the modest finish. 82pts