Zinfandel’s Not the Ugly American

Paul Blow

Zinfandel is the apple pie of wines, steadfastly American. We even project all-American clichés onto it: gingham tablecloths, not white; barbecue or burgers, not duck or filet mignon. And with common descriptors like humble and unpretentious, Zin sounds more likely to win a presidential election than a wine competition. Its populist appeal has made the annual ZAP conference (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) the largest event devoted to a single variety in the world. Between 1993 and 2003, Zin’s acreage in California grew by 48 percent.

Quantity doesn’t translate to quality, however. Another American cliché: lack of breeding. But while many American winemakers turn Zinfandel into overripe, high-alcohol, jammy fruit bombs—which suit the palates of lots of American wine drinkers—Zin also can manifest the elevated features of anything from France. It can be complex, elegant, and restrained, and go beautifully with all sorts of food, not just the kind you cook on a grill. A few producers are making Zinfandel in what could almost be considered a French style—some call it Claret style, after a nickname for Bordeaux—and the number is growing.

Zinfandel’s origin was long unknown. In the 1980s it was proved to be a Croatian native called Crljenak Kastelanski. Genetically it is also the same grape that Italians call Primitivo.

Ridge Vineyards specializes in Zinfandel, and winemaker Paul Draper has been making food-friendly, complex Zins for more than 30 years. The qualities that make it compatible with food, he says, are good acidity, balance, and moderate alcohol. “People say that a high alcohol level is the necessary by-product of getting the Zinfandel grapes ripe,” Draper asserts, “but if your levels are above 15, 16, and 17 [percent], 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. The 2004 is a dense and full-bodied wine that displays all of the luscious fruit character we expect from Zinfandel, but the alcohol level is 14.5 percent. Another 2004 Dry Creek Zin, from Nalle Winery, features typical Dry Creek red-fruit sweetness, but it 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 run by the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Anne Dashe. “We want intensity of fruit but also texture and complexity,” says Michael. “Anne and I drink a lot of French wines, and our tastes were honed around wines meant for the table.” Both Dashes have extensive experience working in Bordeaux, something that clearly informs their Zinfandels, which tend to have absorbing aromas of bright red fruit with firm structures reminiscent of more “serious” wines.

Is it so hard to make a savory, balanced Zinfandel? Yes. “People say Pinot Noir’s hard to grow, but I’d put Zin up against it,” says Dave Phinney, winemaker for Napa’s Howell Mountain Vineyards. “It’s a lot of work.” He makes two dazzling single-vineyard Zins, Black Sears and Beatty Ranch.

According to Ridge’s Draper, old vines are a good start for finding ripe flavors and tannins at lower sugar levels. Draper’s vines are more than 100 years old. Dry-farmed vineyards are best.

One of the hallmarks of the Zinfandel grapevine is its tendency to ripen unevenly. So though some grapes on a vine might be ripe, others might lag behind, underripe. If a less fastidious farmer waits for the laggards to ripen, the earlier grapes will be overripe and raisiny, contributing to the jamminess, high alcohol levels, and washed-out flavors associated with so many 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.”

Many winemakers also use open-top fermenters, which allow some of the excess alcohol in Zinfandel to blow off during fermentation. And finally, most top producers of savory Zin agree that the oak regime must be restrained. “Zin just can’t take much new oak,” says Phinney emphatically. The Dashes say they use hardly any.

Paul Draper sums it 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. It’s almost a labor of love.”

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.