Wines tasted in this report
Flight 1- Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
2006 Pedroncelli Mother Clone 86pts
2005 Quivira 85pts
2006 Holdredge 93pts
Flight 2 - Dry Creek Valley Single Vineyards
2006 Dashe Cellars Florence Vineyard 93pts
2006 Dry Creek Vineyard Somers Ranch 89pts
2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Florence Vineyard 94pts
Flight 3 - 100 years and what do you get?
2006 Terra d'Oro Deaver Vineyard 100 year old - Amador County 88pts
2005 Kunde Century Vines Shaw Vineyard Reserve - Sonoma valley 94pts
2006 Sausal Century Vines- Alexander Valley 85pts
Flight 4 - the big, the bold and the beautiful
2005 Howell Mountain Vineyards Beatty Vineyard Napa Valley 92pts
2005 Cakebread Red Hills Lake County 87pts
2005 Sky Vineyards Mt. Veeder Napa Valley 87pts
At the recent Snooth Zinfandel Panel Tasting I was happy to have the opportunity to run through a great line-up of Zins from some of my favorite regions and producers.
I have never been partial to the monster style Zins and always looked for wines that retained some of the innate complexity that is the trademark of these fine wines. Too often in the recent past winemakers have amped up alcohol, extract and toasty oak to the point where the wines were caricatures of themselves, grotesque mutations unfit for table or glass but awe inspiring to taste. Much like unset jello shots.
Zinfandel has a long and storied history in both California and the entire country. Originally brought to the East Coast for planting as a table grape Zinfandel’s rise to prominence was spurred along by the great gold rush of 1849. The influx of workers that accompanied the search for riches brought along a thirst for wine that Zinfandel helped to quench. Some of the earliest plantings in the State of California were located in the Gold Rush counties of the Sierra Foothills. To this day Amador County in particular, and to a lesser extent Calaveras and El Dorado counties continue to be a source for fine Zins.
These vineyards tend to be at moderately high elevations, benefitting from the cooler climes these meso-climates provide and are stressed by the poor soils here. The combination of long hang time brought about by the cool autumn temperatures at these altitudes and the struggle for nutrients gives these wines a powerful personality with a spicy, minerally character that recalls sassafras and licorice with leathery over-tones. Full rich and fruity they are classic Zinfandels.
Many regions offer similar growing conditions to these foothills. Most of the Napa valley floor and bench land Zinfandel vineyards have been replaced by more profitable, better suited grapes but significant plantings remains in the mountain areas that provide a meso-climate similar to that found in the Sierra foothills. Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak and Mt. Veeder all are capable of producing powerfully rich wines with classic citrussy acidity and dark briary fruit. These are frequently among the most age worthy Zins produced in California.
Sonoma is, of course, home to arguably the best Zinfandel vineyards in the state, and certainly the greatest concentration of old-vine vineyards in the country. These ancient vines thrive in particular spots and have survived wars, prohibition, and countless fads simply because they produce some of the finest wines in the country.
The Dry Creek Valley is the heartland of Zinfandel country, with many vineyards dating back into the 19th century. These vines produce classic wines, brimming with deep blackberry fruit and touched with black pepper and baking spice notes. These are the quintessential Zinfandels. Big and wooly yet balanced and fine with elegance to their power. They go well with a broad range of foods due to their bright acids and fine balance and these qualities allow them to age well, developing earthy, tobacco and cedar nuances as the fruit fades.
While Zinfandel is grown throughout the state these are the historic hot spots for the variety. Paso Robles, farther south, is a great source for fine Zin but I will have to wait for the next tasting to include some in the line-up.
It seems to me that Zinfandel rarely gets the respect it deserves, though that is clearly changing. As these fantastic old-vine vineyards begin to get more recognition, and as winemakers return to a more balanced, natural style of winemaking people are beginning to understand what treasures these wines are. While the grape is not truly an indigenous American grape, having come from Croatia almost 2 centuries ago, nowhere else on earth has the vine found a spot that allows it to produce such rich, flamboyant and compelling wines.
An argument can be made that Zinfandel is the USA’s greatest wine. It has no peer group for comparison. Simply put there are no better wines made on earth from this fickle grape. While it is generally made in style that is rich and decidedly new worldy, it is an adaptable grape and has been made in styles that have ranged from light, easy and fresh to powerful and completely over the top. While the best examples lay in the middle of this stylistic spectrum the simple fact that this variety is so adaptable speak volumes.
Being a decidedly American wine, Zinfandel is frequently promoted as the ideal wine for that decidedly American holiday, Thanksgiving. I suppose one should argue that the other decidedly American holiday, July 4th, should be the perfect time for white Zinfandel but I will leave that discussion for another day.
I am a wholehearted fan of drinking Zinfandel on Thanksgiving. Perhaps I am biased since I do love these wines but it’s big, bold fruit, impression of sweetness and generally vibrant acidity makes it a fine match for the sweeter flavors found on that holiday’s table. The following dozen wines represent a great selection of what is in the marketplace today. While 2005 is a decidedly stronger vintage, a great vintage for Zinfandel, the early release 2006’s that I have tried have proven that the possibility to make great wines was there in 2006 as well.
I encourage you to try some of these wines; they are unique, affordable and delicious and represent something special in the history of American Viticulture!
2006 J. Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 14.4% $12-15
This value priced bottling has a low key nose that is very true to type with a fine blend of earth, cocoa, and mixed red and black raspberry fruit that has just a touch of smoky, toasty, vanilla scented oak influence. In the mouth this offers a restrained, easy drinking style with bright acidity and soft tannins. There is a lovely touch of funky earth right up front followed by fresh and friendly slightly spicy red berry fruit. This finishes with decent length with a touch of tar and spice and while I would like to see a bit more intensity both on the nose and the palate this is recognizable, typical Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. 86pts
2005 Quivira Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 14.9% $15-20
This has a sweet, brambly/herbal nose that shows its alcohol a bit too much. The heat accentuates a minty, chalky character but there are nice notes of lingonberry jam. Sweet on entry with pure raspberry fruit that is backed up with grace notes of tree bark, orange peel, and backing spices. The texture is a bit thick and slick with integrated acidity and soft, ripe tannins. Clean and brisk on the finish with a core of woodsiness and raspberry jam that leads to a final touch of spicy heat. Simple but big. 85pts
2006 Holdredge Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 15.3% $20
This offers up a decidedly dark fruit profile on the nose with hints of sour plum, earth and deep brambly fruit. Very spicy and complex with notes of leather, gunflint, tar and spice all adding complexity. Rich and polished in the mouth with a fine, elegant feel. There is a real vibrancy to the deep, plush blackberry fruit that has great briar, earth, and black spice accents. Really fine intensity and balance though the tannins gain prominence on the finish. This retains admirable purity considering the weight and the power. 93pts
2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve - Florence Vineyard - Rockpile
Dry Creek Valley 14.8% $30-35
Big and fruit bomb nose with intense orange peel and stewy raspberry fruit that is quite complex with tones of vanilla and game accenting the fruit. Gains in the glass adding toasted hazelnut, bitter cocoa and earth, clove tinged baked plum fruits. Surprisingly lean on entry with an intense attack of very spicy fruits and fine herbal top notes. The mid-palate reveals a core of sweet, earthy fruit rich with strawberry and raspberry tones. In a lighter style with lots of polished tannins and while it is a bit lean it really speaks with excellent soil tones. Lacks the chewy weight of many Zins but makes up for it with a fine, elegant feel and remarkably transparent red fruits. 94pts
2006 Dry Creek Vineyard - Somers Ranch Dry Creek Valley 15.0% $24-26
Effusively aromatic with baked earth and fruit tones baked plum, tobacco and smoky oak with a tarry edge. A bit heavy on the nose. Big and rick with a sleek sweetness to the wine. There is a distinct dried fruit tone to the intense cherry/cranberry fruit here and fine pepperiness and briar accentuates the mid-palate. The tannins a fairly substantial but ripe and well balanced. Good length and typicity 89pts
2006 Dashe Cellars Florence Vineyard - Dry Creek Valley 14.5% $30-35
Smoky and with a hint of obvious oak on the nose this has a touch of obvious alcohol as well. The black raspberry fruit if incredibly intense with a jammy edge and layers of toast, butter, and allspice/cinnamon spice that makes this smell like breakfast. Richly fruited in the mouth with that same pure, jammy black raspberry/ black berry fruit that is accented with notes of honey, vanilla, and baking spices. Big and plush with a flannelly soft feel this is engaging and made in a style that should appeal to most palates. 93pts
2006 Sausal Vineyard Century Vines - Alexander Valley 14.7% $30
Very slow to open with subtle vanilla and herb tinged dark, marmaladey fruits that recall date and fig. Fairly caramelly with faded baking spice tones. Big and plush on entry then turning more focused and elegant on the mid-palate. The boysenberry fruits in the mouth are orange tinged with the citrussy acids and the tannins offer a creamy mouthfeel but the wine feels diffuse and while there is a nice candied/medicinal edge to the finish it’s a bit to short. Appealing mouthfeel but lacking in intensity. 85pts
2006 Terra d’Oro Deaver Vineyard 100 Year Old - Amador 15.5% $25
Soft and quite spicy on the nose with cracked pepper, dry baked earth, hot chalk and stone notes adding depth to the vanilla tinged red plum and sour cherry pie. A lurking floral tone gains in the glass. The sweetly fruited attack yields to a gentle mid-palate that features good yet unobtrusive structure for the very spicy red fruits in the strawberry/cranberry end of the spectrum. This is quite fresh with a touch of melon on the back end and there is a subtle custardy, vanilla vein that leads out to the very cherried finish with a touch of spicy red hots and spiced cranberry sauce on the final. Perhaps a touch too easy but with broad based appeal. 88pts.
2005 Kunde Century Vines Shaw Vineyard Reserve - Sonoma Valley 14.9% $30
Very earthy on the nose with great briar tones, woodsy and even a touch feral with a whiff of mushroom adding complexity to the melon rind and pomegranate fruits. There is a lovely campfire note complete with toasted marshmallow. This is so rich in the mouth yet retains elegance due to the fine acidity and superb, ripe and polished tannins. This has the subtle power of old vines and while the red cherry fruit with it’s hint of watermelon may not have the spice or power of many other Zins the depth and jewel-like quality to the fruit is absolutely compelling. The finish offers up a bit spicier and allows the density of the tannins to build but this is just a fabulous bottle of Zinfandel. 94pts
2005 Cakebread Red Hills Lake County 15.1% $40-42
Brambly on the nose with powder sugar and meaty, slightly gamy, leather tones that highlight the very ripe fruit. Bright appley acidity on the nose contrasts with the dark, figgy fruit tones. In the mouth this is fairly precise feeling with soft tannins that are well managed and a bit of bitter spice tones that recall licorice and star anise building on the back end. The relatively high acidity supports the cranberry and pomegranate fruits and while this if soft and plush on the mid-palate it turns earthy and crisp with drying tannins on the finish. A wine filled with contradictions and perhaps in need of some bottle age to sort itself out. 87pts
2005 Howell Mountain Vineyards Beatty Vineyard Napa Valley 15.6% $35-40
Intensely dark fruited aromatics greet the nose with a very powerful backdrop of earth, mineral, brambly, and oak tones. Really evolves in the glass revealing notes of dried herb, dried flowers and rocky, shale notes to the pomegranate and grenadine fruit. Shows surprising restraint in the mouth with excellent focus and precision. The acid is bright and the tannins are fine-grained allowing the deep core of dark yet fresh plummy fruit to come to the fore. There is a lurking touch of peach nectar and vanilla but the fruit is accented by expressive spice and soil tones. A well behaved monster of a Zin with the structure and balance to reward cellaring Finishes with good length if a touch clumsy due to the youthful tannins. A bit of buttery wood lingers on the finale. 92pts
2005 Sky Vineyards Mt. Veeder Napa Valley 13.5% $30
Sweet and herbal on the nose with a pronounced mintiness and autumnal notes of cocoa and balsamic forest floor. There is a touch of peppery watercress and suggestions of candied red fruits. A touch of volatility mars the nose. Elegant and pure in the mouth with sappy berry fruit and classic notes of bramble that are more vegetal that usual. Soft tannins and juicy acidity support the bright red candied fruits with grace notes of blackberry leaves and dirt adding depth and complexity. A touch astringent and decidedly tart this is cleansing and refreshing in the mouth in an easy drinking style but suffers in the mouth from a touch of volatility as well. 87pts
With Thanksgiving coming it's time for Zinfandel
- Reply by vigna uva vino, Nov 19, 2008.
Wo, now that's what I call a comprehensive post! The tasting notes are fantastic and I especially enjoyed the history of Zin in the US.
I'm thinking of bringing the Cakebread (if I can find it) to Thanksgiving dinner along with a Sour Cream Apple Walnut pie from The Little Pie Company. Can you recommend a good Vin Santo to go with it that won't break the bank? Thanks for this, Greg!
- Reply by ChefPrivato, Nov 19, 2008.
I enjoyed participating in this tasting and will soon be writing about it on my site. There are many who are committed to drinking Zinfandel this upcoming Thanksgiving and the timing was perfect.
Of the wines we tasted I particularly loved the 2005 Howell Mountain. After 9 wines that is saying a lot. I can't wait to taste it with a fresh palate and some food.
- Reply by Eric Guido, Nov 19, 2008.
The 2005 Howell Mountain Vineyards Beatty Vineyard Napa Valley
Does sound really amazing and I love the aspect of aging Zin in the Cellar. I've already started to lay down some Ridge zins for just such a purpose.
You mentioned Paso Robles and I have to agree, some of the best Zins I've ever had came out of Paso Robles.
Great Post, very informative. Thanks Gregory.
- Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Nov 20, 2008.
My pleasure. Next year we'll be doing a vertical tasting of Ridge zins going back to the late 70's!
Some will be duds for sure but there's gonna be a lot of surprisingly fine wine in there!
- Reply by Eric Guido, Nov 20, 2008.
Please keep me in mind if you have any openings for that!!! I would very interested in attending.
- Reply by ATootsie, Sep 11, 2009.
I totally agree with you about Red Zinfandels with Thanksgiving! I had an arguement with my husband a few years back, he didn't think it went with Thanksgiving but now I have converted him! I'm sad to say this past Thanksgiving we went dry because of doing dinner with some non-drinkers and we had every intention to have wine with leftovers but for some reason we were to full to eat, hence the dry Thanksgiving. But the good news is we lived thru it! Attootsie