Zinfandel | One Grape’s Journey, Part I

Beautiful Rockpile Ridge. | Courtesy Mauritson Wines

Zinfandel is known as America’s wine (even though it probably originated in Eastern Europe) no other country has so wholeheartedly embraced this delicious varietal. Being that this loveable lug of a wine grape has been welcomed and celebrated as our own and because some entertaining Zinfandel stories abound, it clearly deserves some extra ink. This story will be told in three parts.

Anyone who has been introduced to these wines in the last 20 years knows its signature style is that of a fruit-filled blockbuster. Many high-volume offerings have a touch of sweetness and the wow factor that high levels of alcohol bring.

Italian immigrants and their neighbors started planting this grape in California about 150 years ago.

There’s nothing wrong with these big bruisers and those characteristics make the wines wonderful matches for bold foods such as barbecue and chocolate desserts. That style also contributes to value price levels because the grapes can be grown at high yields and ripeness levels and still retain concentrated fruit flavors that please the palate. This allows producers to make large volumes of yummy, if simple, wine at low cost.

Cool night harvest. | Courtesy Mauritson Wines

What goes missing in such wines is complexity and nuance and they have a tendency to overpower most foods. Being one of the few people I know who collects, catalogs and enjoys aged Zinfandels, I feel uniquely qualified to communicate the history of these beauties over the past 150 years, as well as tell you about some modern versions that offer the old-school styles and charm.

Italian immigrants and their neighbors started planting this grape in California about 150 years ago, usually in vineyards that were referred as mixed blacks, because they typically had multiple grape varieties that were all fermented together into sturdy reds. Through tasting trials, these pioneers determined that Zinfandel was their favorite. So as the vineyards needed partial or complete replanting, Zinfandel became more prevalent. These vineyards were all over California, but as America’s populations moved west and development of land increased, these sites were some of the first casualties.

Fortunately California’s state government kept accurate agricultural records, so we now know which existing sites are truly old-vine. A seminal example of that is Rockpile Ridge Vineyard in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, which was planted by the Mauritson Family in the 1860s and is still producing great wine from their eponymous brand.

Finding true old-vine wines can be a challenge because use of the term is completely unregulated. That’s right, any brand can label their version old vine. But fear not because in the next few columns, I’ll give you a primer on how to identify authentic producers so you can experience your own personal Zintopia.

Cheers to your journey.