Zinfandel has come a long long way since its unfortunate heyday in the 1970’s and 80’s. Those old enough to remember trying white zinfandel (or like me bold enough to go looking, for science sake) Might find it hard to believe such an insipid cloying bottle of juice ever was so popular.
While the overall market hasn’t changed quite as much as I would like (light and sweet still drives a colossal amount of volume the whole world over), the fine wine industry has seen Zinfandel return to grace.
Zinfandel has come so far that it occupies a leading role in some of the current market’s trendiest bottlings. Wineries like Bedrock, Ridge, Turley, and Carlisle offer extraordinary high quality Zinfandel based blends from old vine heritage sources. These extra old vine field blends don’t just offer something tasty and different, they offer a rich backstory. The history (and field blend) that is unique to every vineyard gives the wines inimitable personality. This might be the most appealing factor to a younger demographic that looks for an intimate story and a connection with the wine, rather than just reputation and awards.
The other side of Zinfandel is one that still sticks to traditional modes of selecting and blending grapes from their own estate, rather than from historical vineyards with countless varieties. Both Older wineries like A. Rafanelli, or newer(ish) ventures like Brown Estate have applied more modern sensibilities to their straight Zinfandel bottlings.
Both sides of modern Zin have eschewed its past representations, either the pale sweet blush, or the cloying jam jar reds.
* A Note on Aging * Zinfandel was historically picked later in the season to maximize development of the sugar (or because farmers didn’t know any better). That made pretty unfit for aging. The selections I tasted below run the gamut for age-ability. Bedrocks wines need the longest, minimum 5 years, probably up to 15, Ridge and Carlisle(not featured) should be held for 3-5 years. A. Rafanelli too is balanced enough for a 3-5 year window from vintage (up to 10), and Brown Estate is the best for short-medium term drinking (1-5 years). All of these wines follow the modern trend of crafting for both immediate term and long-term enjoyment, so you can’t really screw it up!
Bedrock is probably the hottest new winery in California, founded by Ravenswood scion Morgan Twain-Peterson, his family connections have no doubt contributed to the range of historical vineyards he has access to. As a result there is some overlap between Bedrock, Ridge, and others who source from similar vineyards. Unlike Ridge, which tends to buy a more Zin heavy allotment, Bedrocks blends are more diverse.
2013 Bedrock WIne Co. The Bedrock Heritage
Roughly 40% Zinfandel, 30% Carignane, and the last 30% the mixed blacks. Planted first in the 1890s, owned by Hearst at one point.
Gritty tannin, velvety fruit, with loads of different herbal and spice quality (oh hi graham cracker, is Zinfandel home?). A little less open on the nose then the others, but feels like it will do brilliantly in 10 years or so. What I loved about this one is it didn’t hit me over the head with Zinfandel spice, and the fruit quality (while still very primary) was brambly with depth and complexity. (45$) *Ridge also sources from this vineyard for their Hooker Creek bottle.
2013 Bedrock Wine Co.Evangelho Vineyard
60% Zinfandel, 18% Carignane and the rest Mourvèdre, Palomino and Mission. Just inland from the Sacramento Delta, planted on 40ft deep sand bank, the vines were planted in the 1890s on their own root-stock. Phylloxera wasn’t a concern due to the high-silica content of the earth. The high winds, warm weather, and sandy soil make for a remarkable and unique wine. Vibrant and coiled, this blend showcasing strong minerality and acid. Red fruit and baking spice with a streak of saline. (38$)
Ridge has a lot of well deserved fame for their historic Cabernet from Monte Bello, but their large assortment of Zin blends from historic vineyards is a real accomplishment. All of their heritage blends are worth trying, though I chose the most freely available for this article.
2013 Ridge Geyserville
73% zinfandel, 17% carignane, 9% petite sirah, and 1% matar. A real benchmark wine for the style. Robust, and structured. Even with the chill I put on it the aromas sang from the glass. Typical baking spice, some rocky quality and and tight core of black brambly fruits. The fruit definitely was reluctant to come out and I imagine a few years will bring this exceptional wine into balance. On the palate the minerality is perfect, with salinity and slate adding some real complexity. Food friendly acidity, but softish tannin. (37$)
2012 A. Rafanelli Zinfandel
Labeled as Zinfandel but I was told it had a small amount of petite sirah blended in as well. This wine screams old school California with its inky red color, and supple texture. Unapologetic influence of french oak (vanilla cream) merge with lush red berry fruits on the nose and palate. Some herbal notes of Bay and garden herbs came with time in the glass. Needs another couple years to shine I feel, but just hitting its window. The 2013 I tried just recently will need much more time as the oak is unbalanced and generally its tight and unyielding. (38$)
*I should note that I also tried a 2004 bought online, just about a year ago. While over the hill, it was only just so and still had some beautiful herbal and textural elements. Just to prove that a wine like this can absolutely make 10 years in more structured vintages.
2012 Brown Estate (Napa Valley) Zinfandel
While this label was founded in the mid 90’s, their style isn’t quite on the cutting edge. Rich full bodied purple and black fruit, this wine was soft and luxurious, yet the high alcohol doesn’t show one bit, and the powerful quality of the fruit doesn’t unbalance the wine. I’d still prefer to leave it for another year to mellow that fruit however. If the tendency of modern wine towards higher acid frustrates you, Brown Estate offers of wonderful example of a more mainstream style done well, with balance and class. (40$)