Zinfandel is California’s Noble Varietal

In the ‘serious’ wine world, Zinfandel tends to have a bad rap. It has a reputation for being a one-dimensional fruit bomb, flaunting itself with zero sophistication. But there are ALWAYS exceptions that will delight even the most sophisticated of palates.

I was reminded of this when I recently tried a bottle of Bliss Family Vineyards Zinfandel leftover from a potluck. At first I had very low expectations of its merits. But when I popped the cork, I was pleasantly surprised by its vibrant acid, depth of character, subtle earthiness, nuanced oak, and food-friendliness.

My advice to you is be open to the possibility of having a great Zin. If you’re looking for quality and sophistication, choose one that is under 14% alcohol. They tend to have a balance of tart black cherry fruit, bright acidity, and brambly nose that remind me of August in the Oakland hills — absolutely delicious and layered with complexity. Plus you’ll find a gem for under $20.

Like Pinot Noir to Bourgogne and Sangiovese to Tuscany, Zinfandel is California’s noble varietal — meaning it has sophistication, age worthiness, beautiful fruit, and has a long history of greatness here in CA. It was also one of the first varietals to be planted commercially in California.

It arrived during the California gold rush via Europe in the mid-19th century, and quickly became the most widely planted vine because its adaptability to the California climate. It is still known as a hearty, disease resistant varietal, with existing Zinfandel vineyards in California that date back to the 1850’s.

Although a vineyard of that age is quite rare, there are a significant amount of vineyards that are 30–40+ years old. These “old vines” give depth and character that younger vineyards can’t possibly achieve. As the vines get older, they produce less fruit naturally and spend all of their energy concentrating the juice of the few grape clusters that remain on the plant. It gives a complexity that’s difficult to achieve by any other means.

The ideal conditions needed to make a great Zinfandel are as follows: 1.) The soil needs to be rich in minerals to help the vines flourish and impart minerality in the wine. 2.) The timing of harvest must take place with exact precision to avoid compromising flavors. If picked too early, the wine will taste like bell peppers; pick too late (like many producers do) and it becomes a sugary juice that masks potential subtlety, earthiness, and complexity. 3.) Vineyard age adds depth and character. 4.) Use of minimal oak to impart notes of baking spice and tannin adds more depth of character.

Zinfandel is the perfect summer wine because it goes great with BBQ. Pork ribs, steak, lamb, duck, portobello mushrooms, and skewered veggies will all sing with one of my top picks:

Bliss Family Vineyards Zinfandel 2012, Estate, Mendocino County — $15

PWR “Poor Ranch” Zinfandel 2013, Hopland, Mendocino County — $18

Omen Zinfandel blend 2014, Sierra Foothills — $20

Bedrock Zinfandel 2014, Old Vine, California — $24.99

We’ll taste an example of one of these well-balanced, vibrant Zinfandels at my upcoming “Discover the Secrets of Food & Wine Pairing” Workshop June 12 in Oakland. Space is limited. Go HERE to make a reservation and save yourself a spot.

It’s impossible to know everything about wine. Let’s keep learning.


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