The quintessential grape of California is not Chardonnay. It’s not Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a somewhat misunderstood (and admittedly sometimes mishandled) Croatian native we call Zinfandel.
I’ve found Zinfandel can provoke a snooty disdain from some people and my contention is that these people do not know what they are talking about. They might be victims of the dreaded “white zin” that ravaged wedding parties in the 1980s; sometimes prejudice dies a slow, slow death. So does White Zinfandel, which is still-still?-purchased at six times the volume of its red counterpart. Caveat! Zin’s a tough customer with a long lifespan, a “bring it, bitch” attitude toward neglect and drought, and a tenacious finish.
Properly handled, Zinfandel (Primitivo if you’re in Italy and Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia) is a structured, robust red wine that can be “hot” or overly high in alcohol if it’s grown in hot climates and gets overly ripe. But Zin plantings that date to the late 19th century are still making incredible wine in California. In Italy, particularly in the south, you will find the same grape going by its Italian alias, Primitivo. The differences are actually subtler than a lot of Europe to US translations (We’re lookin’ at you, Chardonnay!). In either, you’ll discover black fruit, smoke, spice, and round, often jammy textures. Zinfandel is a great grill-tending companion; it loves smoke. It loves meat. It loves spice.
Eight Bottles to Try
Ancient Peaks Zinfandel (Paso Robles, $15)
Ancient Peaks hails from the Paso Robles AVA, where summers are hot. This wine has a lot of structure and is on the intense side, with an intriguing blueberry and white pepper nose. It has the kind of texture wine people will refer to as “chewy.” The hallmark flavors of blackberries, black cherries and vanilla are strong and there are some spicy finish notes and a hint of something caramelized. This wine is begging for pizza.
Artezin (Mendocino CA, $20)
A cool-climate Zinfandel from Mendocino County, whose major exports are fog, chilly Pacific wind, and some of my favorite wines. If you’ve never compared a warm-climate Zin to something like this one, do it, because it’s really interesting. Words like “chewy” and “jammy” do not come up with this wine; it’s silken and rounded. The nose hints at pomegranates and sour cherries. On the palate, an eccentric mélange of herbaceous and spice notes (I get nutmeg, and something like fenugreek) accompany a cedar and raspberry core. This wine is luscious but crisp and taut. A good friend to blue cheeses, pasta Bolognese, and anything you happen to be applying to an open flame, including Portobello mushrooms.
Cline Ancient Vine Zinfandel (CA, $15)
Cline’s Ancient Vine Zin is an easy to locate and easy to drink wine with a dense, ripe strawberry character and lots of spice layers. The words “explosive,” “jump out of the glass” and “mouth-coating” will come up in descriptions of this wine, and not for no reason. In addition to the rich, slightly jammy fruit profile here, there’s a coffee-chocolate-vanilla thing going on, round, smooth texture, and a nice long finish. This is a generous wine but not a completely wild one. Really tasty, really friendly.
Michael David Winery “Seven Deadly Zins” (Lodi, CA $11)
The other thing Lodi CA is famous for besides that one CCR song is very elderly, and hence badass, plantings of Zinfandel. These gnarly old guys produce lower yields and more concentrated flavor. However, don’t mistake gravitas for ponderousness; these guys are pure fun. The buzzword for this wine? Smoke. Yes, blackberries, yes chocolate covered cherries and a bit of caramel and a lot of spice notes and other Grandma’s Kitchen type aromatics. But Smoke. Lots of smoke. Beautiful garnet color, fairly robust alcohol level (“marine influence” is not the main deal with Lodi; it’s hot). Smooth finish. A crowd pleaser and a great friend to large summer parties.
Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel (Paso Robles, CA $24)
Peachy Canyon also has an “Everyday” Zin that’s available for $15. It’s tasty, but I like this one, which has a modest addition of Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet juice for complexity. It has a light menthol note that in my experience of California wines often means there are eucalyptus trees growing nearby (have not verified in this case). Blackberry, raspberry and black plum dominate here, and there are also vanilla, licorice and leather notes. Inky quality, which I mean as a compliment. It’s dense and dark and expressive. The finish is drier than with some Zins, and very pleasant.
Quivira Dry Creek Zinfandel (Dry Creek CA $24)
Yep: I still love Quivira. These Dry Creek superstars make some spectacular wines, most of which you cannot hope to find in the under $25 range. This Zinfandel is a blessing of an exception and an example of what happens when you don’t let Zinfandel come into its overripe expression as a 16% ABV blackberry jam-bomb. This is a Zin with some restraint. Purple, with the ubiquitous blackberry note that lets you know it’s a Zin, and tones of dark cherry, earth, and saddle leather. It’s a rich, rich wine, but it’s not decadent, which I mean in the sense of decaying. It’s one of the more perfect Zinfandels especially for the money, and while you can and should drink it whenever the mood strikes, its true companions are robust, wintry comfort food dishes; think stews, roasted meats, stuffed winter squash.
Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel (Sonoma CA $12)
Ravenswood is a dependable and easy to find Sonoma County Zinfandel. It’s classic, it’s compact, it’s easy to deal with and it’s available at a great price thanks to other people who make Zinfandel a hangover waiting to happen. It’s warm-but not hot. It’s fruity but not nuts. It exhibits the traditional flavors and aromatics of the varietal: Dark berries, vanilla and baking spices, with hints of pepper and vanilla. Made from dry-farmed old vines that get the benefit of a marine influence, this is a rich wine that is not overwhelming. It probably wants to hang out with BBQ, braised ribs, or possibly smoked fish (I have not tried that personally but it seems reasonable). Structured enough to age for a while; inexpensive enough to dispense with all that and open ‘er up.
Surani Heracles Primitivo (Puglia, Italy $17)
I live in California, where Italian Primitivo can be a little hard to find because we are living in a veritable ocean of local Zin, but this one seems fairly easy to come by so I’m including it. Spicy, bright, and not overly hot, this is a black-fruit and baking spice kind of deal with a hint of earthy or dusty notes. Chocolate on the finish. A good friend to grilled meats. But find me a Zin that isn’t.