Finding the heart of zinfandel

By Eric Asimov

The comment from Preston G. of San Francisco seemed dismissive and definitive. Over the last month, as this column has been exploring zinfandels that were a step back from the popular over-the-top blockbuster style, he wrote: “Restrained is not authentic to the variety.”

Here at Wine School, expressions of historical certainty about wine generally arouse suspicions, as do assertions of authenticity. They are almost always wrong, yet nonetheless valuable in provoking discussions.

Determining the authenticity of any product is never an easy task. It’s particularly difficult with wine. Its production is largely specialized, with few accessible records to testify to the techniques and goals of long-ago vignerons.

The question of authenticity is especially perplexing in the New World, where decisions about which grapes to plant and what style of wine to make were often entrepreneurial or commercial rather than cultural.

Even so, if you are producing cabernet sauvignon in California or pinot noir in Oregon, you can at least consult historic references, like Bordeaux and Burgundy.

If you are making zinfandel, however, you are for the most part on your own. Although zinfandel has been shown to be genetically identical to tribidrag, a Croatian grape, and to primitivo, from the Puglia region of Italy, no definitive Old World blueprint existed for early zinfandel producers. Free from the dictates of well-known styles, they were able to follow their own muses.

Nonetheless, old zinfandel vineyards, as Eric of Capitol Hill, D.C., pointed out, do offer a few clues about what long-ago wine producers were thinking.

Preston G. cited Italian immigrants in California in the 19th and early 20th centuries who planted zinfandel, often in concert with other grapes. Some of these vineyards survive to this day, and are cherished and protected as heirlooms, while giving us some idea of how these farmers imagined their wines.

Zinfandel, for all its alluring qualities of spicy fruit flavors, can, depending on the vintage, lack other attributes. It is not always sufficiently tannic, for example, so these old farmers made sure as well to plant petite sirah, a notably tannic variety.

It can be light in color, so the vineyard could contain a grape like alicante bouschet, which yields dark, deeply colored wines. Other grapes, like carignan, might have been planted to add acidity, along with any number of other varieties, each with its particular attributes.

Industrial winemakers today can simply take care of any potential problems in the cellar, adding products like Mega Purple, powdered tannin or tartaric acid to solve issues of color, structure or acidity.

But these long-ago farmers, with their Old World experience, anticipated problems with more natural solutions. As today’s cliché has it, those old wines were truly made in the vineyard.

Still, we don’t know much about how their wines smelled, tasted or felt in the mouth. And zinfandel producers cannot point to Old World cultural traditions, even if the immigrants who planted these old vineyards were in a sense trying to conjure up the wines they’d enjoyed in southern Italy or wherever they originated.

The history that does exist identifies no dominant style of zinfandel. In his entertaining 1991 book, “Angels’ Visits: An Inquiry Into the Mystery of Zinfandel,” David Darlington pointed out that over many decades zinfandel styles “swung widely from moderate claret-like table wines to lurid alcoholic essences to pink soda-pop-like aperitifs.”

“This lack of a coherent zinfandel tradition is, however, another thing that makes it a purely American wine,” Darlington wrote in the book, which was later reissued as “Zin: The History and Mystery of Zinfandel.”

In other words, zinfandel could invent and reinvent itself. Most recently, over the last 25 years, its identity has been that of an extravagant, alcoholic wine. Good producers could match power with precision. In less skilled hands, the wines could just as easily be thick, sweet and syrupy.

But history tells us that zinfandel can be a lot of things, depending, as with so many wines, on the intent of the producer. Our aim in exploring a more restrained set of zinfandels was simply to examine the wine made from a different point of view.

As usual, I picked three examples. They were: Broc Cellars Vine Starr Sonoma County Zinfandel 2018, Maître de Chai Clements Hills Stampede Vineyard Zinfandel 2017 and Dashe Cellars Vineyard Select California Zinfandel 2018. The alcohol content ranged from Broc’s 12.8% to Maître de Chai’s 14.2% to Dashe’s 14.5%.

While wines above 14% alcohol may not seem restrained, in the context of zinfandel, where wines have often topped 16% and even hit 17%, restraint is a relative thing.

Even among these wines, the differences in character were profound. The Broc was bright, fresh and nervy, with aromas and flavors of flowers and spicy fruit. Acidity was its defining quality. It was tangy, lightly tart and deliciously refreshing.

Chris Brockway, the winemaker, says Vine Starr was inspired by the wines of Beaujolais and the Northern Rhône. For me, Beaujolais was most evident in its snappy, juicy vibrancy and simple, easy-to-digest drinkability.

The Dashe, at 14.5% alcohol, was rounder and richer, yet pretty, with bright, spicy, floral flavors. It was extremely well-balanced and reminded me of an excellent Southern Rhône blend, although the producers, Mike and Anne Dashe, say only that they were aiming for a “bistro wine,” a bottle made to go well with food.

Unlike the Vine Starr, which was 100% zinfandel, the Dashe included 6% petite sirah, which may account for its lightly tannic texture, and 5% teroldego, a northern Italian grape that paired seamlessly with the others.

The third bottle, from Maître de Chai — French for cellar master — stood out. It was a single-vineyard wine, unlike the others, from grapes grown on decomposed granite soils in Clement Hills, a small viticultural area in the southeast part of Lodi.

The other two wines, regardless of the intent, were varietal wines, defined by the characteristics of the grape as expressed by their producers. The Maître de Chai, though, seemed to be a wine of a particular place, earthier and more mineral, with focused fruit and floral flavors and a pleasant touch of tannin. As with the Dashe, several other grapes like mission, grenache and mourvèdre were part of the blend, though the producers were not explicit about the precise mix.

As different as the bottles were, I thought each was an excellent example of zinfandel’s potential in a variety of styles.

By and large, readers seem to enjoy zinfandel, although some pushed back against my aversion to high-alcohol bottles.

Readers also offered plenty of suggestions of favorite producers, which I very much appreciated. Alex Seizew of Ojai, California, even suggested a white zinfandel from Turley, which happens to be an excellent bottle, dry and refreshing.

As far as these wines went, however, opinions flew in all directions. Martina Mirandola Mullen of New York likened the Maître de Chai to an elegant Bordeaux blend, but George Erdle of Charlotte, North Carolina, said it was syrupy and disjointed. His dining group enjoyed the Dashe best, and seconded my suggestion, calling it Rhône-like.

Jerry Pendzick of Jacksonville, Oregon, said the Broc reminded him of a watery pinot noir. But Martin Schappeit of Forest, Virginia, took my recommendation and tried a 2015 Broc with a recipe for orange beef.

“This food fits this wine like Cinderella’s foot fit the shoe,” he said. “I was sitting down and thought in a sentimental moment: This is an American wine and I love it.”

The Character of a Place

This month we’re going to try something a little different.

Ordinarily, I suggest three bottles of the same type of wine. Instead, I want to compare three wines that are closely related but come from different appellations within a larger region, the Northern Rhône Valley of France.

Each is made with the syrah grape. But what if anything distinguishes one from the others? That’s what we are going to examine.

The French appellation system suggests that each place will have its own distinctive characteristics. It’s one thing, say, to compare a Chambolle-Musigny from Burgundy with a Chinon from the Loire Valley. One is made from pinot noir, the other with cabernet franc. You would expect that they would differ for that reason alone.

But if wines are made with the same grape, other factors come into play. In the case of the Northern Rhône, the French authorities concluded long ago that the wines made in St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas were all sufficiently distinctive to warrant separate appellations.

What would be the basis for the differences? Soils, drainage, microclimates, elevations, angles of inclination toward the sun, viticulture and, yes, the human element, all play a role. Terroir, in short.

Of course, we would be naïve not to acknowledge other factors, like economics and politics, that influence how appellations are shaped.

When the St.-Joseph appellation was founded in 1956, for example, it was intended to convey the qualities of wine grown on steep granite hillsides clustered near six villages. Eventually, though, because of economic and political pressure, the appellation was extended to include flat, fertile, easy-to-farm areas that yield inferior wines and muddy the meaning of place.

Still, St.-Josephs made by good producers, who respect the spirit of the appellation, ought to give good ideas of the character of a place. Here are the three Northern Rhônes I suggest:

J.L. Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage Silène 2018 (Erin Cannon Imports, Manhasset, New York) $30

J.L. Chave Sélection St.-Joseph Offerus 2017 (Erin Cannon Imports, Manhasset) $31

Domaine Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 30 2018 (A Thomas Calder Selection/Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York) $40

You will note that two of the wines come from the same producer, J.L. Chave Sélection, the négociant arm of Jean-Louis Chave, one of the great producers of the Northern Rhône. I think these are among the best and most accessible examples of both St.-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. If Chave offered a Cornas, I might have chosen that bottle, too. Vincent Paris is an excellent choice in his own right.

If you can’t find these bottles, please consult Wine School columns on St.-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage for other options.

We have not covered Cornas previously, so if you cannot find the Granit 30, please consider bottles from Franck Balthazar, Alain Voge, Guillaume Gilles, Mickaël Bourg, Domaine Lionnet and Jean-Baptiste Souillard. I’m not suggesting legendary producers like Thierry Allemand and Auguste Clape, but if you have a spare bottle, by all means go ahead and drink it.

I like pretty much anything with Northern Rhône reds, but you can’t go wrong with a roast chicken, various beef dishes and savory stews.

A cautionary note: You may not find compelling differences among the wines. This is simply the beginning of an exploration, not a scientific experiment intended to reach definitive conclusions.

If you do find differences, they may tell us little about appellations. They may be the usual variables that would be apparent in wines made from different producers, or different vintages in the case of the St.-Joseph.

Differences in terroir become apparent over the course of many years of consistent evaluation. This month’s wines are not the end, but the beginning.

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