Wine Ink column: The allure of zinfandel, a grape for All Hallows’ Eve
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Elvira’s Macabrenet 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon — I can’t help myself. I have no idea if this wine is still made. I have no idea what it tastes like, or if it is even available anymore. But I have a soft spot for anything Elvira — though she would obviously prefer a hard spot — and when I saw this wine online I thought, “What could be better for Halloween?” What can I say?
This is the time of year when wine columnists write stories about wines with scary names or labels for the Halloween crowd. It is a cheap and lazy undertaking, to be sure, and I myself have been guilty of it. In fact, it was the column I was going to rehash again this week because, well, Halloween is on Monday.
But while perusing the wine aisles of one my favorite local wine shops, doing “research,” I spied a bottle of one of my favorite wines on the shelf, the Old Ghost Zinfandel by Klinker Brick. And suddenly it occurred to me, I’d rather recommend some great zin than write a hack-job seasonal column.
A GRAPE FOR THE SEASON
We are in late October, the time marked by the fall of the leaves, the changing produce in the gardens and the shorter days. This is the time we turn to a little heartier fare. And for me, zinfandel is the perfect accompaniment to the foods we gravitate toward this time of year. Stews, roasted meats and home-baked pizzas all go great with red wines made from the zinfandel grape.
Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, a nonprofit trade organization, agrees with me and hosts events on National Zinfandel Day, Nov. 16, to “celebrate the grape and the extraordinary diversity of wines and styles from renowned winemakers and emerging wineries.”
Depending upon the style in which it is made, zin can be a ’tweener grape, not as rich or full bodied as, say, merlot or cabernet sauvignon, but a touch more tannic and higher in acidity than, say, most pinot noir. The flavor profiles of the grape tend to be a little sweeter, with most exhibiting really obvious blackberries or raspberries, and some zins can be very hot, or high in alcohol. There are many variations and styles of zin, and the locations where they are grown, the terroir, can have a huge impact on the style.
Some of the “hot beds” for the grapes are Paso Robles, Lodi and the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, all in California. These are all places that are marked by stony soils and, most importantly, have long, hot growing seasons that allow the zinfandel grapes to ripen in the sun, becoming juicy and flavorful.
THE AMERICAN HERITAGE GRAPE
Like most things we consider to be “ours” here in America, the origins of the zinfandel grapes can be traced to the Old World. Long thought to be a derivative of the Italian Primitivo grape brought to this country in the 1820s, more recent genetic testing has confirmed that it is really a DNA cousin of an ancient creation grape called the Crljenak Kastelanski.
But like pizza, we created our own history. In the days of the California Gold Rush, zinfandel was widely planted in the foothills of the Sierra and in what is now known as San Joaquin County. The vines thrived, and much of the early California wine production was founded upon zinfandel. There was a fallow period for the grape, but in the 1970s Sutter Home Winery began to produce “white zinfandel,” a pinkish sweet wine that became a “gateway wine” for future wine sophisticates. The wine played an important role in creating the California wine industry we know today.
Then in the early 1990s, there was renewed interest in the grape for the production of a wide style of wines, including robust reds and even late-harvest dessert zinfandels. Today, the grape produces one of the most popular of all wines in America.
While there are a number of great zinfandels in the marketplace, there are a few producers who have long love affairs with wines made from the grapes. Look for zinfandel from Ravenswood, Renwood, Ridge, Rosenblum, (yes, the four “R”s), Cline, Hendry and Mauritson, and you will find a wide range of styles from a wide range of vineyard locations.
And about that 2013 “The Old Ghost,” the single-vineyard zinfandel from Klinker Brick. I have included this wine in my Under the Influence selections in the past. At around $40 a bottle, it is the product of 90-year-old vines in Lodi, California, that produce tiny, berry-size grapes that pack a punch. Winemaker Steve Felten nurtures, cajoles, cradles and ultimately wills a wine from the vines that is, in his description of the taste profile, “spooky.” It is so good, it’s scary.
A great wine for Halloween, or any other occasion.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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