Zinfandel has long been considered California’s “own” grape varietal. The truth is that all of the grape varietals we know today, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and so on, are all European imports. We previously believed that Zinfandel was an actual American varietal, and claimed it as such, but after tracing its roots back for the past decade or so, we have other possible origins to consider. Zinfandel was thought for some time to actually be Primitivo from Umbria Italy, and now it allegedly has Croatian roots, as an offshoot of the grape Crljenak Kaštelanski. Whatever it might be (it’s hard to keep up), I do believe that California does best with this varietal, and the best place to locate the “Zen of Zin” is the Dry Creek Valley AVA in Sonoma.
I can’t speak about Red Zinfandel without mentioning its evil twin White Zinfandel. Yes, it’s the same grape, but White Zinfandel spends less time on the skins (which gives wine its color) and rather than fermenting it dry like most wines, sugar is left in the wine. White Zinfandel was made famous in the 70’s by Sutter Home…it was created by accident when Bob Trinchero was making a rosé from Zinfandel and the fermentation stopped, leaving more sugar in his wine. Bob decided to put some of this juice aside, tasted it a couple weeks later, and decided to sell it. BOOM! Thus began the White Zinfandel craze, and it hasn’t stopped since! Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a hater to anyone drinking White Zin! I started there just as many other people have and will continue to do in the future. It’s a perfect gateway to start developing your palate for wine.
Let’s get away from the “non-serious” Zinfandels—those with the clever, over-the-top names or the wild, eye-catching packaging; I’m want to spotlight the people that are making crazily complex Zins in their sacred home in Dry Creek Valley. Famous names include Dry Creek Vineyards (a pioneer in Dry Creek), A. Rafanelli (only available on fine wine lists) Dashe, Seghesio, Pezzi-King…and the list goes on. These are not the over-heated, super-ripe wines of Lodi, these are the complex, nuanced, fine wines of a cooler climate. The morning fogs from the Pacific help retain the acidity in the wines, yet it’s still warm enough here to get the grapes fully ripened without being “overcooked.”
The Dry Creek “Beeson Ranch” Zinfandel has such an explosion of potpourri, pepper, anise, damp earth, black and red fruits on the nose and has even more of these on the palate. It keeps evolving and surprising you with each sip you take. Finding wines like this for a $35 price point can be difficult, especially when you think of the Cabernet family and how much you’d normally have to spend to get this kind of complexity. Next time you are thinking of BBQ ribs, for example, pick up a bottle of a Dry Creek Zin, then sit back and let the magic happen!
Wine writer Maggie Bernat Smith contributes to the Strongbox blog each Friday.