Singing the Praises of the Much-Maligned Zinfandel

One of the fun questions I enjoy asking wine drinkers is, if you had one wine to take with you to a desert island, what would it be?

I have several good friends who would choose New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, with their zesty, grapefruit-y notes, as exemplified by the Kim Crawford or Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blancs ($18.85 and $22.85, respectively, at the Yukon Liquor Corp).

For me, my ideal desert-island wine is probably Zinfandel.

Now, when many people hear “Zinfandel”, they think of the semi-sweet rosé (blush-style) wine, made famous by vineyards such as Sutter Home, whose White Zinfandel ($11.80 at the YLC), is one of the best-selling wines in North America.

Despite its popularity (almost 10 per cent of all wine sold in the US is white zinfandel), I am afraid that I am not a fan … White Zinfandel is too sweet for my taste, though properly chilled, it can be refreshing in the summer time.

Now, Red Zinfandel is a very different story — I love it with a passion.

It’s a relatively high-alcohol wine (usually 14+ per cent), and the taste can range from slightly jammy to tannic and slightly rough on the tongue.

The former end of the spectrum really works for me with spicy foods like pork BBQ, while the later end of the range is terrific with grilled meats like steak or shish kebabs.

The Zinfandel grape is related to the Italian Primitivo grape — both can apparently trace their common ancestor to grape vines in Croatia.

Two examples are carried in the YLC — Sant’orsola 35 Parallelo Primitivo del Salente ($11.75) and the much-better Ognissole Primitivo di Manduria 2005 ($26.35) — and it might be interesting to open a bottle of one of these and a comparably priced Zinfandel to compare.

Zinfandel is the one wine that I am aware of that produced almost exclusively in the United States, so every time a friend goes over to Alaska, I send them with a Zinfandel wish list.

My all-time favourite Zinfandel maker is Seghesio, and examples of their Zinfandel Sonoma County run about $24 a bottle in Alaska.

In 2008, this wine was ranked #10 inWine Spectator‘s top 100 wines of the year — an admirable accomplishment for a wine that costs about 25 per cent of what most of the top 10 wines on that list usually run.

Price is one of the really exciting aspects of Zinfandel, particularly when you are able to shop across the border. While a top-of-the-line American Cabernet Sauvignon can easily run into the multiple hundreds of dollars, you would be hard-pressed to spend more than $50 U.S. on a top-of-the-line Zinfandel.

I know that is still a lot of money, but what it means is that you can be tasting a very good Zin for about $30 U.S. if you are over in Alaska.

Aside from Seghesio, other Zin champs to look for are wines by Ravenswood, Rosenblum Cellars, Coppola Vineyards, Turley and Cline.

The less expensive Zins will be a blend of Zinfandel grapes from a mix of locations, while the higher-end ones will be from a specific plots of land of particular vineyards, such as the Rosenblum Cellars Rockpile Vineyard, Rockpile (about $40 U.S. in the states) or Seghesio’s top-of-the-line-San Lorenzo Zinfandel, which runs about $60 U.S.

Here in Whitehorse, we seem to have sad shortage of Zinfandels from the great Zin vineyards (I am going to have to try and figure out why).

None of the above vineyards are represented, and the four of five Zins that are here seem to represent either entry-level efforts by vineyards with no particular talent for Zinfandels.

Examples of the wines are Pepperwood Grove Zinfandel ($16.95 from Yukon Liquor Corporation) and Beringer Zinfandel California Collection ($14.00 YLC ).

The Zinfandel stock in this city is also heavy on novelty products, such as Delicato Twisted Old Vine Zinfandel ($17.25 YLC) and Gnarly Head Zinfandel ($20.00 YLC), that seem to rely more on their zingy names and labels than true wine-making capability.

This being said, I recently bought a bottle each of the Pepperwood Grove Old Vine Zinfandel and the Delicato Twisted Old Vine Zinfandel to give them a try. Both are “old vine”-style Zinfandels, with their grapes coming from vines that are 50 years old or more.

In general, old vines produce less grapes, but with more concentrated flavours, and this is particularly true for Zinfandels. So if you’re looking for a flavourful glass, search out the Old Vine Zins.

Myself and several friends gathered at my cabin one evening last week to try these two Zins, with a sampling of different tasty treats to match them with. None had tried Zinfandels before, but all were wine lovers, and found the wines a new and quite interesting experience.

Julie, one of my neighbours, said that the wines “tasted like summer” and, indeed, the ripe fruit bouquets of both were a delight to both smell and taste.

The Pepperwood Grove Zin was the more conservative of the two. More reserved and tight in flavour. At first I thought it the better of my two choices. The Peppergrove captures more of the traditional Zin character that is so admirably represented by the honour list of Zins mentioned above.

However, the more we tried different foods with the wines, the more we began to appreciate the more flamboyant flavour of the Delicato Twisted.

We tried the wines with brie cheese, but their bold flavour proved to overwhelm.

Pairing the wines with blue cheese and fig jam worked better, with the pungent flavour of the blue working better with the spicy and robust Zins.

The Delicato Twisted seemed the better food wine, working well with everything from lamb BBQ to fresh peaches.

I’m going to lean on the YLC to try bringing in some Zinfandels from the primo vineyards down in California, but in the mean time, if you want to try something a little different in the way of a good red, especially with BBQ season upon us, try out a Zinfandel or two, and let me know what you think.


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