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Think Zinfandel for Your Holiday Table

Thanks For Ancient Vines

The much-touted Thanksgiving feast is an ideal occasion to indulge in misty-eyed, heartfelt toasts to family and friends. To commemorate the festivities as well as accompany the cuisine, I inevitably serve one or two favorite wines. The spicy, herbal-scented reds of the southern Rhône, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, are intriguing, silky wines that delicately season every facet of the traditional meal. Then again, if my mood craves a bit more whimsy and my pocket a more economical choice, I might rely on the berry-bursting freshness of California zinfandel.

Granted, these wines are predominately coveted for their appealing taste, but for me, much of their enjoyment stems from fond memories of the places where the wine is made and the grapes tended. Thus, much in the way a time-tested family recipe creates a memorable dining experience, wine appreciation at its finest inspires tableside storytelling.

Zinfandel has its own story. The quintessential California grape with multiple personalities and a DNA trail that leaps from Croatia to Italy to the Sonoma Valley provides devotees with one of the most colorful histories of any grape variety. Often referred to as “America’s Heritage Grape,” zinfandel is made all the more beguiling by its unfailing commercial character, enduring several boom and bust cycles in California’s notoriously fickle wine economy.

Beginning in 1848, thirsty gold miners and the hordes of fortune-seeking newcomers that followed helped propel this variety into fashion. The tendency of zinfandel vines to produce high yields during harvest made it a particular favorite among winemakers who struggled to keep up with demand. Practical considerations also influenced the growth of zinfandel over other grape varietals. Whereas most vines require trellising along a wire supported by posts (materials in great demand for the construction of gold mines) zinfandel thrives in a freestanding bush shape known as the “goblet” or “head pruned” method. Some of these historic vineyards are still in use today and the old vines that populate them are frightful images—contorted figures with short, writhing canes and age-thickened trunks covered in a dark, shaggy bark. Despite the wizened appearance, their ethereal fruit is the most sought after by winemakers!

Italian immigrants further popularized zinfandel. In order to make a hearty table wine, Italian vintners were known to plant an assortment of varieties in the same vineyard, then harvest and press the different grapes all together. The potent zinfandel with its gutsy flavors generally comprised the lion’s share of these field blends. Today, although growers commonly plant like varieties together, many winemakers mindful of past traditions add varying percentages of other grapes to complement the character of zinfandel. Petite Sirah, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Grenache and Mataro are most often chosen for this tasty, style of field blend. The result is spectacular depth, exotic spice and explosive flavors.

The Pours

I recommend lighter style zinfandel with Thanksgiving if you want to avoid sleepy guests mistaking the mash potatoes for pillows. The telltale briary, red berry character of zinfandel livens up the blandness of the turkey and starches while highlighting the refreshing tartness of cranberry. Here is the quick sip of some of my favorite zinfandels of late:

Ridge Paso Robles: Medium body, concentrated, flavorful. Great balance with classic red raspberry. Delicious. $20.

Windy Land Dry Creek: Full body, dark fruit, spicy. Big wine for $15.

Four Vines Biker: Full body, rich with toasty oak and vanilla, loads of blackberry. Hedonistic. $23.

Kelley Creek Dry Creek: Medium body, refreshing lift with tart red fruit. Bargain at $12.

Charter Oak The Wine Mind: Velvet. Rich, soft old vine zin, only 135 cases made and an attractive label. $30.

Sobon Old Vines: Medium body, big flavors, silky balance. $17 .

Sobon Hillside: Light body and juicy, freshly picked berry flavor. $12.

Mauritson Dry Creek: Structure like a cabernet—medium-full body, highly rated, delicious wine. $23.

Hendry Napa Valley: A blockbuster that can dance! Once a grower for Opus Wines, outstanding fruit and superbly crafted. $35.

Bucklin Old Vine: One of my most cherished wines—nothing like it—from one of the oldest vineyards in Sonoma, Old Hill Ranch. Order direct from the winery and you’ll probably get Will Bucklin, winemaker, to answer your call. $40.

California wine laws require 75 percent of the wine must be made from the grape named on the bottle, thus you may have to visit the winery’s website to find out the identity of the remaining 25 percent. Ridge Vineyards, one of the most prolific and famous zinfandel producers, lists the percentage of blending grapes on the front label of their wines. An interesting experiment is to taste Ridge’s Paso Robles 100 percent zinfandel alongside their Geyserville blend (the 2007, for example, is only 58 percent zinfandel).

Another term often seen on zinfandel labels is “old vine” or “ancient vine.” Though the terms have no legal definition, “old vine” generally means the age of the vine is over 50 years old and “ancient” refers to vines that are 80-plus years old, with some historical vineyards dating back over a century. Although a century is hardly “ancient” when one considers that zinfandel has been linked genetically to primitivo of southern Italy’s Apulia region and in turn to the Crljenak Kasteljansk grape in Croatia. A word of warning: Do not buy a primitivo and expect to taste a California zinfandel—clonal differences are evident in the characteristics of the two wines.

You might ask, “So what’s the catch? Why have I never seen zinfandel alongside Chateau Margaux at the wine store?” While gaining world renown for its ability to make serious wine, this hearty red has an image problem to overcome because of its long association with the anemic white zinfandel. (White zinfandel is made from the free run white juice of the zinfandel grape and gets its pink hue from minimal contact with the dark skins.) As a result of this lamentable relation, zinfandel is underrated and widely misunderstood to be a sweet, pink wine.

In addition to the misconception of zinfandel as a fruity blush, European varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay have garnered much attention in the marketplace overshadowing zinfandel’s humble origins. In recent times, the demand for wine made from grapes with a European heritage, such as the noble Cabernet Sauvignon of Bordeaux fame, led to the depreciating of this purely American wine phenomenon. And it is just this unpretentious, homegrown mystique that attracts anti-wine snobs to the many varied styles of zinfandel.

This leads me to the last myth concerning zinfandel—that it only makes high alcohol, overly ripe, port-like wine. While it is true that zinfandel can ripen to extreme sugar levels, producing wines potentially colossal in alcohol and sweetness, there are also many examples of restrained, elegant and fresh tasting wines. The difficulty for the winemaker with this variety of so many personalities is that the grapes ripen unevenly. So much so, that underripe, green grapes as well as raisiny, shriveled grapes may be clumped together on the same bunch. If not carefully sorted the wines will be messy concoctions of stewed fruit and thin flavor.

So then, how does one a wise selection make? Producer, producer, producer. The best way to find quality zinfandel is to buy from a reputable maker who most likely sources their fruit from old vine vineyards and painstakingly handpicks all the fruit. A producer’s enthusiasm for working with heritage vineyards is based not only on the complexity of flavor that these old vines impart to the fruit, but also in the beautiful balance of the resulting wines.

Much enthusiasm is generated for this native grape among zin drinkers. No other California grape has been imbued with such a playful, good-natured persona. While many wine consumers regularly enjoy zinfandel in the lower price categories as an everyday quaff, it may be overlooked for special occasions. Granted, there are much sought after small production zinfandels with cult status made by the likes of Turley, A. Rafanelli, and Biale, but for the most part the consumer is still reluctant to splurge on the higher priced wines.

In the marketplace, however, the tainted past of zinfandel presents savvy wine buyers with an exciting opportunity to acquire old vine wines at bargain prices—what more does one require to celebrate American heritage?

Paula Paradise is director of wine education for Premier Wines & Spirits (3445 Delaware Avenue, Kenmore). If you would like to learn more about zinfandel or other wine topics, please visit the Premier Group Web site ( for a list of free wine classes.

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