If Bordeaux is a classical symphony, then Zinfandel is the Allman Brothers Band. Big, bold, quintessentially American and at times sublime, Zinfandel at its best has rich, lively fruit flavors with an earthy, spicy and sometimes peppery character.
It is versatile, found in blends with other grapes or as a single vineyard bottling. And it also has been made into the slightly sweet white Zinfandel.
But it is the red wine that has achieved remarkable heights during the past several years. Some can be aged for as long as 10 years; however, most Zins are drunk young, generally within five years after release. Usually they are affordable, but some Zins, such as Turley and Martinelli, have achieved "cult" status and you have to wait years to get on a mailing list to obtain a bottle.
First planted in California in the mid-1800s, Zinfandel was long used as a blending grape or as a jug wine. Making good Zins is labor intensive and requires a high degree of wine making skill. It is a difficult grape to cultivate since it ripens haphazardly with irregular fruit, but Zinfandel vines can be productive for more 100 years. These "old vine" varieties are highly prized, often producing wines with exceptional flavors.
Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards was among the first to create remarkable wines from Zinfandel. Other excellent producers include Rosenblum, Ravenswood and Seghesio. A multitude of styles range from light to port-like. The more jammy flavored wines are associated with 14 to 15 percent alcohol content because they are made from very ripe grapes. Late-harvest Zins have noticeable residual sugar and an even higher alcohol content. Zinfandels complement richly flavored foods such as roasts, leg of lamb and game dishes.
Unfortunately, not all winemakers are as careful as Paul Draper, Turley's Ehren Jorden or Rosenblum's Jeff Cohn. A number of recently tasted Zins had weird aromas, weak unbalanced flavors and a noticeable lack of fruit. However, others demonstrated the characteristic rich fruit flavors, balance and spiciness that are the hallmarks of a good Zin. Here are some of the better wines:
Kenwood Jack London Vineyard Zinfandel 2001: nicely balanced with currant and raspberry flavors and an oak/cedar finish
Zahitla Vineyards Zinfandel 2002: medium bodied with plum and berry flavors
Joel Gott Zinfandel 2002: black cherry and plum flavors and a light oak finish
Ridge Three Valleys Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 2002: plum, cherry and raspberry flavors with solid structure and toasty finish
Abundance Vineyards Zinfandel 2002: lighter style with berry and raspberry flavors and mild finish
Murphy-Goode Snake Eyes Ellis Ranch Zinfandel 2002: big bodied with deep color, raspberry and slight vanilla flavors and a smooth finish
Murphy-Goode Liar's Dice Zinfandel 2002: rich cherry and raspberry flavors; also big bodied with a nice finish
Fritz Winery Old Vine Dry Creek Zinfandel 2001: firm body with ripe raspberry, currant and cherry flavors and slight oak finish
Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County Sonoma 2002: well balanced with great berry, black cherry and sage flavors, a firm structure and spiciness
Rosenblum Paso Robles Richard Sauret Zinfandel 2001: rich mocha and blackberry flavors with smooth structure and mild oak finish
Several Ravenswood 2002 Zinfandel single vineyards were tasted, including Belloni, Old Hill and Cooke. While all were very good, notable were Teldeschi with smooth balanced flavors, Big River with nice open fruit flavors and a silky long finish, and Monte Rosso that has big cherry and berry flavors, medium body and mild finish.