The Noble Writ: Original Zin


I find zinfandel an utterly fascinating story. For many years, it has been referred to as American's own grape variety. Not because anyone thought it was native to these shores, but because its story mimics that of so many Americans: It was a humble, unknown import from Europe, adapting to conditions throughout California's wine regions. It has been used to craft wines ranging from classically-styled table wines to rich, ripe blockbusters to port-style dessert wines. It is the grape that came without pedigree or expectations and, with some hard work and luck, succeeded wherever it went.

In 2002, Dr. Carole Meredith of the University of California at Davis finally answered the question of what zinfandel was and where it had originated through her pioneering DNA research. These answers did nothing to change zinfandel's rags-to-riches story as Dr. Meredith determined zinfandel was none other than crljenak kastelanski, an obscure variety even in its homeland of Croatia.

Throughout its history in California, zinfandel has been boom or bust. In pre-Prohibition days, zinfandel was an important anchor to the entire California wine industry, forming the backbone and bulk of much of the wine produced by the state. Many of these old vineyards survived Prohibition by being tended by families of Italian immigrants, who supplied both the home-winemaking and sacramental-wine markets, both of which flourished like never before during Prohibition. However, when "serious" winemaking began to reemerge, these old vineyards and zinfandel in particular fell out of favor, and many were ripped up.

Out of favor, though, meant cheap -- or at least cheap for the quality of the grapes -- and wineries such as Ridge Vineyards began sourcing old zinfandel, along with the other varieties that were usually co-planted with it such as petite syrah, carignan and alicante bouschet. These producers treated the grapes with respect and created vinous masterpieces in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

  • User "Anachronist," Wikimedia Commons
Through several more ups and downs such as the "white" zinfandel craze and experimentation with "late harvest" zinfandels that had extremely high levels of alcohol, zinfandel has persisted. It has its own fan club, ZAP, and numerous books have been written about it. I'm a big fan of Angel's Share (also released under the title Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel) by David Darlington which chronicles the friendly rivalry and very different approaches taken toward zinfandel by Ridge Vineyards and the then-upstart Ravenswood.

Zinfandel is notoriously uneven in its ripening, as the picture above demonstrates. A single cluster frequently will have raisining grapes, over-ripe berries, under-ripe berries and a few green berries as well as properly ripened fruit. Wait too long to pick, and you'll end up with a jammy wine with little acidity and extremely high alcohol. Too soon, and bitter tannins and acids will dominate.

My ideal zinfandel has plenty of fruit, but that fruit still speaks of berries, rather than jam made from them. I love the spiciness the variety brings as well as good acidity. While the zinfandel pendulum is swinging (slowly, it seems to me...) back toward the more balanced style of wine that I prefer, some producers have always worked in this vein, and today's selection is one of those:

  • Dave Nelson
2006 Nalle Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($26, Bon Vivant Wines): Clear dark ruby. Ripe blackberry and spice on the nose with excellent complexity. There is an initial touch of oak that dissipates with a few swirls of the glass. What a mouthful of fruit! This is one of those wines where you taste everything at once: very ripe blackberry, almost blackberry liquor, with really nice supporting spiciness. This is just round and seamless as you taste and swallow. Again there is a touch of oak -- more than usual for Nalle -- but it's still very tame by California standards. Good, integrated acidity and length.

A joy to drink now, but for my palate could use a year or two in the cellar. Andrew at Bon Vivant also has the '05 available at $29; he just tasted the '07 and reports that it is top-notch.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.


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