Crazy About Zinfandel?

Part 1

Well, I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only one. I also am particularly aware that this grape variety has stirred very polarising opinions amongst sommeliers and seasoned wine drinkers. It is a wine that evades many in blind tastings (which must especially frustrate the egos of sommeliers) because of the vastly different styles. Regardless, Zinfandel’s success in its historical home in Croatia, its spiritual home in Italy and its more recent frontier in the New-World’s Californian sun-drenched valleys, is all a testament to the inherent quality and persistence of this great grape variety.

Not many sommeliers I know are fond of Zinfandel wines, attributing their ambivalence to its rather simple and fruity style – and less admittedly its evasiveness in a blind tasting.

Wineries, especially in California, have consistently positioned Zinfandel wines second to their Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot labels, inadvertently marketing this wine as the lesser option within their selection. Prohibitive? Well, perhaps.

But Zinfandel’s potential quality within California beyond its obvious commercial success – notwithstanding the bastardisation of it all with the gratuitous innovation that is ‘white Zinfandel’ – has its devoted advocates. It was after all, during the 1850s, the most widely planted grape variety in the state of California.

The Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard Project (ZAP) is one such advocate of this grape variety, promoting the quality of Zinfandel through it carefully selected and cultivated grape cuttings and also works to identify some ‘legendary Zinfandel vineyards’. A very well made video commissioned by ZAP details the differences in some of these vineyards and its effects on the wines.

Many old vines of Zinfandel remain in California, some of which have existed even prior to the era of Prohibiton, and continue to produce to this day. The Original Grandpère Vineyard of Amador County does claim to have vines that are about 150 years old, making it home to some of the world’s oldest Zinfandel. Deaver Vineyard is another vineyard also in the Amador County, that is home to Zinfandel vines planted as far back as 1881.

Though I may not have wines today from either of those vineyards, they all come from very reputable Californian estates. Grgich Hills, Heitz Cellars, Château Montelena and Ridge are some of the most Iconic wineries in California, though they are not known necessarily for their Zinfandel wines.

It does look as if I had turned my bedroom inside out looking for a missing bottle of Grgich Hills. I unfortunately am left with only this picture as the one I intended to use was not saved.

Of the lot, I must say that there is one estate that does take more pride in its Zinfandel than the rest of them. It has also got to do with the heritage of the founder of the estate and his family that now continues to run it.

Grgich Hills estate was founded in 1977 by Mike Grgich, an immigrant from Croatia. Mike Grgich was Head Winemaker at Château Montelena from 1972 to 1976. His claim to fame came when the Chardonnay that he had made with Château Montelena had ranked 1st in the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting.

The Grgich Hills estate now farms about 150 hectares of vineyards completely organically and produces about a dozen different wines. This 2012 Napa Valley Zinfandel comes from its vineyards in Calistoga where most of the estate’s Zinfandel is planted.

It wasn’t as lifted as the rest of the Zinfandels I’d tasted in this flight, and showed plenty of restraint. The fruit quality was nice and ripe and had just a touch of jam on the nose. No new oak here, leaving the focus on the fruit. It generally lacked the intensity you’d expect from the higher quality Californian estates, and definitely not in a bad way. The elegance in the wine helped lift some of the more nuanced aromas and flavours like black tea and cola. The wine did have some Petite Sirah in the blend, at about 3% and spent about 16 months in neutral large French casks prior to release.

Overall, it would have ranked somewhere in the top 10 Zinfandels I’ve ever had. The acidity was fresh, the tannins and the primary fruit intensity was very well balanced. One thing that I had not enjoyed about this Grgich Zinfandel was that its alcohol did not feel integrated with the wine. I must say however, the wine did rub off me as if it were from the old-world, possibly the ‘Croatian touch’ showing through. It was however not anywhere as ‘old-world’ as my next Zin.

Don’t drink and read.

Now this has got to be one of the best Zinfandels that I’ve ever had – The 2012 Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Zinfandel. I am really looking forward to having this again.. oh what a treat.

Founded in the 1950s by ex-Beaulieu winemaker Joe Heitz and his wife Alice, Heitz Cellar would eventually produce its first vintage 12 years later with the Grignolino variety in 1962. Shortly after, the winery would be known for its single-vineyard wines, with their Martha’s Vineyard wines becoming the first single-vineyard designate wine in the state, in 1965. This success would spur the addition of a few other single-vineyard bottlings, with the inclusion of Bella Oaks Vineyard and the Trailside Vineyard into their portfolio. The Ink Grade Vineyard however was the latest addition and was acquired in 1989.

This 80 hectare east facing vineyard finds itself located within the Howell Mountain AVA and is planted to a variety of different cultivars, some of which are Portugese varieties.

Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks and the wines are aged for two years in French oak barrels with a small percentage of new oak used here. The garnet colour of the wine struck me as an indication of the wine perhaps showing some development. The nose confirmed this, that the wine was developing with aromas of bruised black fruit, but still held its presence with great aromatic lift. It felt like some of that lift could have come from volatility in the wine.

It was indeed a savoury, earthy and complex number, possessing this undeniable old-world quality. I would always play this game with myself when I’m tasting alone, by asking myself what I would have thought this wine to be if it was served to me blind. My answer this time was that I would’ve thought the Ink Grade Vineyard Zinfandel to have been something from northern or central Italy. Its aromatic intensity was what had me comparing this in my head to a Brunello or even a Barolo. The difference however, would be more obvious on the palate.

The acidity and fruit intensity was well balanced, and the tannins would have been a medium plus. It felt like just the right amount of tannins for me. Alcohol although 14.5% was well integrated in the wine. The concentration of flavour was strong but not juicy, or jammy or fruity. It was earthier, deep and sophisticated. This is a wine to enjoy now. I would not keep this for much longer and really, what for? It just perfect now. I really look forward to getting acquainted with the rest of the Heitz Cellar wines eventually!

Zinfandels come in many different styles but so far it does seem like the price points generally stay the same. I have yet to taste a Zin that would cost as much as perhaps a winery’s top Cabernet Sauvignon release. Well I’m definitely not complaining. I talk about 2 more Zinfandels in part 2 (to be published) and perhaps some Tribidrag in part 3? Stay tuned!