There is no grape that characterizes the roots of American wine quite like Zinfandel, and what better way to celebrate its rich history than on the 4th of July, and for the remainder of many summer barbecues to come. Like Jazz is to American music, and Hollywood is to world cinema, Zinfandel’s contribution to the world of wine has been recognizably American in nature. Although recent DNA testing has placed the original seeds of Zinfandel in Croatia in the 1800’s, (and it’s cousin Primitivo in Italy) no other country thrives on its growth more than we do here in the USA, and particularly in the warmth of the California sun. Some may overlook these wines for their jammy, rich and concentrated fruit character, yet many others enjoy its mouth-watering sweet cherry cola, and dark chocolate notes that provide pleasure normally in the realm of 15-16% alcohol by volume (ABV). That may be high by most standards, but sometimes necessary to craft fine Zinfandel from grapes that rarely ripen evenly. They require warm climates and well-drained hillsides, and have very short harvest windows as a result. As one of the largest planted wine grapes in California by acreage (trailing only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon), Zinfandel covers a lot of ground (including White Zinfandel). Here are the top 3 most iconic Zinfandel wines from California that we highly recommend looking for to accompany your next barbecue tri-tip, skirt steak, burgers, rotisserie roast, and anything that can handle some char and smoke.
The Turley name has become synonymous with iconic California Zinfandel over the last 2 decades, and they have a reputation that has been earned through a dedication to quality and care for their vineyards. Larry Turley, a long-time Zinfandel fanatic, started the company in 1993, as a way to fine tune his passion for Zinfandel after spending a good part of the 80’s at Frog’s Leap with then partner, John Williams. Old vines are instrumental in budding the fruit that creates his fine wines, and the sweetness that pours into your glass with each bottle. This wine is from the Dusi Vineyard, a plot that has been well-kept by its original owners, the farming family of Dante Dusi, laced with twisted vines that date back to 1945. What you taste in the glass is almost magical. It’s a blend of gentle sweetness, backed by powerful tannins, with concentrated fruit reminiscent of mountain berries and cherry pie, with aromas of cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla. This wine is rich in character; a result of the low yield of fruit produced by 70-year old vines. It all starts in the vineyard, and that is exactly what Larry Turley communicates in this brilliant bottling. Try to find this now, as 95-point ratings and low production usually cause prices to sky-rocket. Drink now through 2020. 900 cases produced. (Scores: WS-95)
Ridge Vineyards is undeniably the most American name any wine has ever carried, down to every detail found in both the vineyards and in the winemaking. The genius mind of Paul Draper, a legend in the world of wine, has created the Ridge empire we have come to appreciate today, that made its first wines in the 1960’s expressing the true terroir of California. These are wines that have rivaled some of the world’s most celebrated, and have stood the test of time. How do they do it? Ridge has the utmost appreciation for their land and a precise understanding of each site through decades of dedicated work with old vines, and minimal interventionist practices. Some vines are over 115 years old, and have survived viral plagues, prohibition, and climactic weather patterns that killed off many of California’s wine crop in the 20th century. Only American oak barrels are used, unlike many who believe French oak is king. Ridge wines touch nothing but American seeds and American hands through the entire process from bud to bottle. This is why Geyserville is arguably the most symbolic Zinfandel of the modern era. Now family to a entire library of single-vineyard world-class Zinfandel, Ridge uses many obscure grapes in their blends; grapes normally not found in high volume in the USA. Carignan, Mataro (Mourvèdre), and other grapes normally found in the Rhône Valley of France, will sometimes appear as blending grapes in several Ridge Zinfandels. This wine, the Geyserville Zinfandel 2011 comes from an old vineyard just north of Healdsburg, CA and retails for a modest $38. It’s very well distributed, in high-end grocery stores, and wine shops, so when you see it, grab it! They also make half bottles that are usually easy to find right alongside their big brothers. This wine has the lowest ABV of the 3 wines we highly recommend (14.2%) and really shows the brightest fruit expressions. The wine’s profile is classic Zin with summer cherries, pepper, cigar box cedar, and licorice that all express themselves harmoniously. Drink this now, or age it 10-12 years. 8,000 cases produced. (Scores: RP-93, ST-91, WS-87)
Seghesio Family Vineyards has been an integral and evolving part of Caifornia’s wine industry dating back to the late 1800s. The family refers to the Zinfandel grape as “The Boss” because of it’s intense and bold presence on the vine. The 2011 Zin is a medium-bodied syrupy wine exhibiting flavors of sweet blackberry fruit and maduro tobacco leaf. It’s plushness comes from blending Dry Creek and Alexander Valley fruits. It is then aged 10 months in 75% American/25% French oak barrels. A higher alcohol level of 15.5% is hidden underneath pepper spice and raspberry jam but is apparent by the long legs the wine leaves on the glass. This is a Zinfandel that deserves to be paired with the smoky barbecued flavors of the grilling season. At $24 a bottle, Zin never tasted so good! On Saturday, July 27th, the Seghesio family will be hosting their 10th annual Zin & BBQ Festival. For further information on this event, click here. This is probably the easiest to find of the 3 selections, and the most widely distributed. Drink now through 2020. 87,000 cases produced. (Scores: WS-92)
Recommended glassware: Riedel Vinum XL Riesling Grand Cru Wine Glass
Coming soon: The Grapes of Summer: Nebbiolo