For many of us, winter means a blazing fireplace and Sunday stews. For those of us planning to be in warmer climates, it’s time for a jacket and maybe a brisk walk in the morning. No matter where you live, winter is the season to move to heartier red wines.
There’s probably no other grape variety as American as zinfandel, a European grape variety introduced in the West Coast during the Gold Rush of the mid 19th century. A prolific grape of murky origin, zinfandel vineyards baked in California’s hot sun and produced a lot of grapes for jug wines. They served the home winemaker quite well during Prohibition when eager amateur winemakers preferred zinfandel because it was the earliest to ripen.
Not only did zinfandel survive 13 years of this failed era, but its vineyards were largely spared the 1990s’ phylloxera scourge that decimated vineyards planted with old world varieties. Thus, many of the existing zinfandel vineyards, grown on St. George rootstock, are more than 100 years old.
Today, vineyards planted with St. George rootstock in the 1920s continue to thrive in places like Lodi, where sandy soil acted as an irritant to the bedeviling root louse. Old vines have reduced vigor as they age, but the grapes are often intense. These vines look more like trees – known as “lodi ladders” — because they were planted by arborists instead of viticulturists.
Kevin Phillips of Phillips Farms grows grapes on the historic Bechthold Vineyard, first planted in 1886. He said of old vines, “When it’s said and done, they’re a pain in the ass. But I adore them. They just require a lot more care.”
Zinfandel Advocates and Producers is on a quest to bring attention and preservation to these legendary zinfandel vineyards.
The value of getting the last breath from withering vines may be more about pride than it is about producing superior wine. Those winemakers with whom we recently spoke admitted that it would grieve them to abandon a vineyard established by pioneers.
Robert Biale, owner and president of Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa Valley, said he is part preservationist. He draws grapes from the R.W. Moore Vineyard which was planted by a seafarer in 1905.
“Zinfandel has such a long, deep history – more than cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. We’re just lucky to have this kind of urgency to keep them in the ground,” he said.
Coaxing old, gnarly grape vines to produce fruit each year is akin to coaxing an old dog to chase a ball. The desire isn’t there, but a little encouragement goes a long way. Each vine has its own personality, so it is incumbent on experienced hands to patiently care for it. That’s why you won’t find single-vineyard zinfandels in the portfolios of large commercial producers who look for bigger yields.
Why bother with these vines? Old zinfandel vines produce wine of great concentration and suppleness. Every time we taste one of these giants, we taste terroir, history and, of course, layers of beautiful fruit.
These single-vineyard zinfandels are very different from one another but their intensity puts them above the pack. They are very special.
Michael David Ancient Vine Bechthold Vineyard Cinsaut 2018 ($25). Philips said Michael David has been buying grapes from this vineyard since 2003. He compared the divisions of this vineyard to the Game of Thrones – sections are designated for each winemaker with some selling some of their harvest to other producers. We couldn’t get enough of the juicy cherry and strawberry flavors in this utterly delicious wine.
- Maitre de Chai Stampede Vineyard Clement Hills Zinfandel 2018 ($35). Grower Jeff Perlegos said the winemakers like this fruit because they can achieve “fairly ripe flavors and low alcohol and high acidity.” There is a lot of whole-cluster fermentation in this medium-body zinfandel. It’s not the fruit bomb you expect from zinfandel, which is a relief. Ripe plum and raspberry flavors with balanced acidity.
- McCay Cellars TruLux Vineyard Zinfandel 2016 ($35). This vineyard was planted in the 1940s. Raspberry, blueberry mix with graphite to evince an alluring bouquet. Blackberries and plums with hints of black pepper.
Turley Wine Cellars Kirschenmann Zinfandel 2018 ($32). Tegan Passalacqua, grower and winemaker, said pickers make several passes through the vineyard during harvest and the combination brings different layers of fruit and more complexity. Perfumy, floral nose with oodles of sweet cherry and blueberry flavors.
- Biale Vineyards R.W. Moore Vineyard Zinfandel 2018 ($62). Biale attributes the success of this gem to the layers of organic material that gives the Oak Knoll soil a “fluffy, gravelly” composition. This wine has a soft but intense structure with plum and earth notes.
- Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 2018 ($45). This producer has been making legendary zinfandel for years. Winemaker John Olney, like the others, feels lucky to have the Lytton Springs vineyard. The wine is a field blend of zinfandel, petite sirah, carignane and mataro. It is a lively and fresh wine with raspberry and plum flavors and effusive floral aromas.
- Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Vineyard Gnarly Vines Zinfandel 2017 ($75). The name Louis Martini is legendary in itself but so is the Monte Rosso Vineyard. Michael Eddy, director of winemaking, said Martini – a “pretty scrappy dude” – bought the Red Mountain Vineyard in 1938. Eddy points to the red soil that gives the mountain its name and the wine its acidity and ripeness. Lots of dusty earth notes with spice punctuating the dark fruit flavor. The wine is like eating a slice of raspberry pie with juice oozing out the side. Concentrated, full-bodied and long in the finish with a hint of cooking spices. This epic wine is worth every penny.
- Klinker Brick Rauser Vineyard Carignane 2017 ($25). More than zinfandel is grown on old vines. This carignane from 110-year-old vines is generous in forward cherry, cassis and blackberry fruit. Hints of clove and oak.
Raeburn Winery Russian River Chardonnay 2019 ($20). This is one of the best bargains in chardonnay. It is a full assault of generous apple and pear flavors with oak-driven notes of vanilla and toast. Nice, round mouthfeel.
- Be Human Red Blend 2018 ($17). The name alone is reason to pick up a bottle, but inside is a barrelful of fresh, exuberant cherry and blackberry flavors. From the Columbia Valley, the wine from Aquilini Family Wines is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and cabernet franc. We also like the producer’s Dixie & Bass Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($18).
- Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2018 ($35). This medium-body, lush pinot noir exudes juicy cherry flavors and a dash of spice.