when zinfandel turns to chocolate

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

High alcohol is a fact of life for many wines these days, but nowhere is it so completely ridiculous as in the world of zinfandels.

Don’t get me wrong; I am (or at least was) a huge fan of the grape. For years I actually did an annual zinfandel review for Wine Enthusiast magazine. Somewhere around August of each year I’d receive 200 to 300 zins to review. I’d do an entire week of nothing but zinfandel tastings, organized by AVA. It was a ton of fun, and I always learned a lot from the experience.

Back then (about 12 – 15 years ago) zinfandels were still in what might be called the moderate range of alcohol. One of my favorites – Nalle – remained at 13.5% well into the 1990s. By the late ‘90s quite a few zin producers were topping 14%, but only a handful hit 15%. I remember a conversation with Paul Draper (founder of Ridge) at a zinfandel showcase in the Dry Creek valley around that time. He was pouring a Ridge Lytton Springs (as I recall) from the mid-1970s. It was 12.5% alcohol! And it was drinking very well at more than 20 years of age. I asked him why the new Lytton Springs were close to 14.5%. I’m not sure he had a good answer, other than that is how we now ripen the grapes.

Well 14.5% looks downright sensible these days (the new Ridge Lytton Springs is right there, by the way). The other night I opened a flight of 7 current releases (all California, of course). They ranged in (listed) alcohol from 13.5% to 16.9%. Now, listed alcohol gives winemakers a fudge factor of one percent either way. And taxes rise significantly if you are 14% or over. So when I see a 13.9% listing, I wonder if it’s actually higher. But I can’t imagine anyone fudging UP to 16.9%. Sadly, that number is probably accurate.

The wines I had open were old vine bottlings from a variety of locations – Lodi, Amador, Russian River, Dry Creek, Paso Robles – all regions known for producing good zins. I tasted through them in order from lowest to highest listed alcohol, looking for the "sweet spot" of ripeness, where zin really shows its best. I could pretty well track the fruit flavors changing right on up the alcohol ladder. Quite interesting.

The Estancia 2009 Keyes Canyon Ranches zin was the opener, at 13.5%. Its flavors definitely reflected that; seeming a bit muted and leafy. Old style for sure, but pleasant enough. A bump up to 14.5% brought me to the Bogle 2009 Old Vine zin, sourced from vineyards in Lodi and Amador. This is really a star – 175,000 cases are made, and it sells for around $10. Juicy, fruity, full-bodied and simply delicious.

Also in the flight were 3 of the 6 single vineyard Ravenswoods, and the old vine Pagani from Ridge. These wines came in at 14.5%, 14.9%, and 15% – pretty much all in a cluster. The Ridge was the wine of the night - a field blend with alicante bouschet, carignane and petite sirah in the mix. The Teldeschi and Belloni from Ravenswood were good; the Big River a bit hollow. My problem with all three Ravenswood zins was the acidification – they left a chalky aftertaste. My Washington palate may be over-sensitive to acidification, because the wines I taste daily are almost always naturally acidic. If there is any acid addition it is done gently and well-integrated.

The last bottle in the lineup was the 16.9% Michael David 'Lust' – it was like drinking Hershey's chocolate sauce with alcohol. Like a dry Port. This is not all that unusual. Rosenblum has scaled these same heights for years, as have others such as the Jackass Vineyard zins. I simply do not see how anyone can drink these monsters. Then again, heavy metal music never spoke to me either.

The sweet spot? I’d put it right around 14.5%. That is plenty ripe, without blowing out either the terroir, or the palate. If I want chocolate syrup, I won’t look for it in a wine bottle.


Madeline Puckette said...

Zinfandel is wine to the United States as apple pie is dessert to the United States.

I am intrigued by the idea of a "sweet spot" in zin. However, the sample pool seemed a little small, I wish you were making these scientific measures whilst trying those 200-300 bottles!

Anonymous said...

I usually love most zins but recently the higher alc wines leave me just a little off. I do prefer balance and the possibility of being able to drink at least to glasses without becoming overly indulgent.

Anonymous said...

I feel the same way, Paul. I'm not an expert when it comes to Zinfandel, but I think many of the lower alcohol Zins I used to enjoy were field blends that included Petite Sirah and some other varieties that might have brought the ABV down a notch. I notice that some of the Zins that I like best today (Frog's Leap and some of the Ridge wines) take this approach.

Chris Wallace said...

I have has a few of the type of overdone Zin that you refer to (Turley comes to mind and some of the older St Francis Old Vines) and what they lack in subtlety they don't seem to make up for elsewhere. But mostly I find Zins to be full bodied, full flavored and fruit forward without being too heavy (for my palate). I am generally a big Zin fan. One in particular I can recommend is T-Vine. Small production but well worth seeking out. Calistoga based. Fits in the zone you preferred.

Robert Biale, President, Zinfandel Advocates & Producers said...

Paul, we appreciate your spending time to talk about Zinfandel. As you yourself suggest, Zinfandel can be made in a variety of styles. Alcohol is one factor in winemaking; oak, residual sugar, acidity, tannin and vintage are additional components that will shape the structure of the wine as well.

Expressions of exceptional California Zinfandel speak to balance in winemaking, regardless of a specific alcohol content, and may also capture the inherent qualities of the vineyard. However, the popularity of higher-alcohol wines demonstrates consumer interest in this wine-style. Isn’t it wonderful we have such a great range of Zinfandels to experience? Cheers!
Robert Biale, President, Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (Robert Biale Vineyards)

Chocolate Wine said...

I always prefer balance and the possibility of being able to drink at least two glasses without becoming overly indulgent. I just had my first ChocoWine this past weekend. I liked it a lot, and so did about 4 of 5 others at the dinner.

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