A Question of Balance

Over the last decade or two, few subjects have interested wine aficionados in this country more than Zinfandel. The subject of endless fascination and mystery, Zin, as it is affectionately known, has been close to the hearts of wine drinkers in part because it is known as “America’s grape.” Firmly rooted for over a century in the diverse soils of California, from Paso Robles to the Russian River to the Sierra Foothills, Zin was our one great wine grape whose origin couldn’t be traced back to Europe. Until it was.

Zin, as it turned out, had been living amongst us as an amnesiac with no memory of its past. A few years ago, though, DNA testing discovered that in fact Zinfandel was the alter ego of Primitivo, grown for centuries in Southern Italy. And then it turned out that the true identity of both Zin and Primitivo was a grape that went by the name of Crljenak Kastelanski, from an island off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Still, it never seemed to truly thrive until it kicked off the dust of its Old World roots and made a new life for itself in California.

While all this attention has been a boon to Zinfandel’s growth and reach (between 1993 and 2003, Zinfandel acreage in California grew by 48%), it hasn’t actually done a lot to improve Zin’s social standing. It’s often characterized as better suited for a picnic than for a fine restaurant, and many winemakers have taken this image to heart, reinforcing the stereotype by making big, overripe, high-alcohol, jammy fruit bombs—wines fit for little more than burgers or pizza, if that.

This is unfortunate, as Zinfandel is actually a grape with all the elevated features of any of the classic French grapes: It is able to demonstrate terroir (that is, communicate a unique sense of where it was grown), to show complexity, elegance, and restraint, and to go exquisitely with all manner of food, both high and low. In fact, Zin need never be a fruit bomb. As a wine it naturally shows exuberant fruit, but also much more—spice, bramble, herbs, and pepper. The good news is that there are several producers making Zinfandel in what could almost be called a European style, and their number is growing.

“We taste a lot of Zinfandels,” says Paul Draper, longtime winemaker for the California’s venerable Ridge Vineyards, “and we’re delighted when we taste something that complements food.” Ridge specializes in Zinfandel, and Draper has been making exquisite, food-friendly Zins for more than 30 years. The qualities that constitute compatibility with food, he says, are good acidity, balance, and moderate alcohol—three things not found in many of today’s Zins. “People say that a high alcohol level is the necessary byproduct of getting the Zinfandel grapes ripe,” Draper asserts, “but if your levels are above 15 or 16 degrees, you’re choosing to do that. No Zin needs to be that ripe.”

Ridge’s famous Lytton Springs Zinfandel from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is a good example of a well-balanced Zin. The 2004 is a dense and full-bodied wine, displaying all of the luscious fruit character we expect from Zinfandel, but the alcohol level is 14.5%. And with aromas of spices, pepper, and forest leaves to go along with its ample black raspberry core, it is as much savory as it is plump. Another 2004 Dry Creek Zin, from Nalle, features typical Dry Creek red-fruit sweetness, but also has a lip-smacking acidity that makes it gorgeous with food. Its alcohol is a mere 13.9 percent.

The Dry Creek Valley is also the origin of a wonderfully savory and balanced Zin from Dashe Cellars, a winery that truly tries to make food-friendly wines. Run by the husband and wife team of Mike and Anne Dashe, the winery is located in Oakland, but sources grapes from northern Sonoma.“We try for a house style of intensity of fruit but also texture and complexity,” says Mike Dashe. “Anne and I drink a lot of French wines, and our tastes were honed around wines meant for the table. Too much fruit, too much tannin, too much alcohol, too much anything can spoil that.” Not only do Mike and Anne (who is French) drink a lot of French wine, but both have extensive experience working in Bordeaux, which clearly influences their Zinfandels. In addition, Mike worked at Ridge under Paul Draper for nine years. All this experience is apparent when you taste their 2003 Louvau Vineyard Dry Creek Zinfandel, which has summery aromas of bright red fruit, herbs, brambles, and dust, and a great structure that begs for grilled steak or pork.

So how does one make a savory, balanced Zinfandel? As is so often the case with wine, it starts in the vineyard. Paul Draper of Ridge says that Zinfandel grapes can be loaded with natural complexity—flavors beyond the fruit and the jam—but they have to be cultivated, harvested, and vinified with a notion toward preserving and encouraging these qualities.

Draper believes that vines need to hit the half-century mark before they can deliver truly ripe flavors and tannins at moderate alcohol levels. But even so, he asserts, old vines alone are not the answer: Site and farming techniques are critical. “I’ve tried 50 different Zinfandel vineyards and we only work with 12 or 14. Even if the vines were 50 to 100 years of age, we rejected many of them because they didn’t produce a consistency of flavor that we liked.”

Dave Phinney, winemaker for Napa’s Howell Mountain Vineyards as well as his own Orin Swift label, agrees. For the former, he makes two dazzling single-vineyard Zins—Black Sears and Beatty Ranch—from Napa’s famous Howell Mountain. Both are impeccably balanced and complex. “You walk up to those vineyards, and it’s a no-brainer,” he says. “Black Sears has 40-year-old vines, head-trained, in an alluvial bowl. Beatty Ranch, you just look down at the soil and it’s the red, rocky, iron, alkaline. Some vineyards you taste the fruit and it’s exceptional, and sometimes it just tastes like ripe grapes. Beatty vineyard tastes exceptional—the grapes themselves have complexity.”

Site selection is only the beginning, however. After that comes the real work. “People say Pinot Noir’s hard to grow, but I’d put Zin up against it,” Phinney asserts. “People have to know how to grow it, when to thin it, how to thin it, when to pull leaves, how to harvest—the list goes on and on.”

One of the hallmarks of the Zinfandel grapevine is its tendency to ripen unevenly. While some grapes on a vine might be ripe, others might lag behind. If a less-than-fastidious farmer waits for the laggards to ripen, the ripe grapes will be overripe by the time of harvest. And if he lazily harvests them all together, the raisined grapes will contribute to the jamminess, high alcohol levels, and washed-out flavors that have come to plague so many modern Zinfandels. “You can really combat uneven ripening by having balanced vines,” says Anne Dashe. “We take off a lot of fruit that’s lagging behind other clusters. It’s more work, but you have to do it if you want to make sound wines.”

“I think Zin requires a lot of attention, more than is commensurate for what it sells for,” says Jay Heminway of Napa’s Green and Red Vineyard, a highly-regarded producer of balanced Zinfandel. There’s an awful lot of crop thinning, it tends to want to mildew, and it has very thin skin so it’s susceptible to rain. It also ripens very unevenly and requires a great deal of attention at harvest. We sort judiciously in the vineyard, try to drop a lot of fruit, keep clusters from touching each other. It ends up being a lot of hours.”

The Dashes also sort through the grapes in the winery, taking out anything that shows the pinkness of under-ripeness and the raisining of over-ripeness. Many winemakers use open-top fermenters, which allow some of the excess alcohol in Zinfandel to blow off during fermentation. And finally, almost all top producers of savory Zinfandel unanimously agree that the barrel regime must be restrained. “Zin just can’t take much new oak,” Phinney insists. The Dashes say they use hardly any.

Paul Draper sums is up: “Good Zinfandel takes a lot of effort. You’re putting in more time than most wineries in the vineyard and, if you’re going to make it in a traditional way, more time in the winery. Youa bottle of Zinfandel next to two half-filled glasses have to monitor it so closely from the fermenting tank through the barrel aging, tasting it all the time, watching it. It’s almost a labor of love.”

But their labor is our love. A balanced, complex Zinfandel is an irresistible thing, with all the elegance and savory qualities of a great French wine. It just takes a lot of hard work—and what could be more American than that?

7 Heavenly Zins

Dashe Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2004

Bright and zippy, this wine has moderate alcohol, great acidity, and bright fruit. Try it slightly chilled with strongly flavored food.

Hartford Court Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2004

From vineyards averaging 80 years in age, this bargain has a Pinot-like fineness, but also all the deep, rich, berry fruit typical of the Russian River.

Howell Mountain Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2004

Bright cherry and raspberry meld with notes of anise and white pepper in this exuberant wine. Fine tannins make for a juicy, long finish.

Green and Red Vineyard Zinfandel Chiles Mill Vineyard Napa Valley 2003
Subtle flavors of pepper, earth, and dried herbs intermingle with lovely, pure raspberry and blackberry. An impeccably balanced wine meant for the table.

Nalle Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2004
Impossibly bright berry flavors are sharpened with juicy acidity and a medium-bodied suppleness. Lovely with charred chicken or grilled ribeye.

Ridge Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley 2004
Powerful yet elegant, this wine has a lovely purple hue and a mélange of spices and herbs to go with its sweet berry core.

Storybook Mountain Zinfandel Mayacamas Range Napa Valley 2004

From the benchmark Zinfandel producer comes a magnificent Zinfandel, uniquely complex and savory with mineral, violets, blackberry, and waves of flavor.