November 18, 2007 Tasting
My long time friend and wine buddy Sam Sundeleaf is hosting the November wine tasting event of the Confrérie des Vignerons de Saint-Vincent de Mâcon
With doing a two bottle tasting here are the specifics:
When: Nov. 18th, 3pm
Where: Vino Vixen
2929 SE Powell Blvd
Portland, OR 97202
1) Blind tasting of 9 Zin’s
2) Each person will need 9 individual glasses for a one flight experience.
3) The tasting will focus on three items:
Focus on what wine tastes most like Zinfandel to you.
Pick out your favorite wine
Attempt to match each wine
2005 Ridge Pagani
1997 Ridge Pagani
2005 Turley Juvenile
2005 Turley Old Vine
2005 Biali Black Chicken
2005 Martinelli Giuseppe & Luisa
This is not a comprehensive wine tasting of all the key Zin producing areas. This tasting is an attempt at focusing on wines that expressed the character of the Zinfandel fruit. With this intent there will undoubtedly be disagreement and suggestions of what might have been a better choice and so forth. The case is I’ve devoted an hour to tasting wines that I think might fit this scenario. Also with the event there will be an education of the history of Zinfandel. The fact that the USA can call ownership to Zinfandel (in a matter of perspective that is).
For all its identification with California, Zinfandel's origins used to be considered quite mysterious. For a long time there was only speculation, then in the 1970's it was discovered that Zinfandel was identical to a southern Italian variety called Primativo. Everyone thought that Zinfandel was Primativo and the word even started showing up on California labels. The only trouble was that further research showed that Primativo first showed up in Italy during the 1890's but Zinfandel had been in California years earlier. The latest research shows that Zinfandel is the same as an old Croatian variety called Plavac Mali. Just how it came to be called Zinfandel has been lost in the mists of time.
To make high quality Zinfandel in California you have to use grapes from low yielding vineyards. You could just prune back the vines but there are a couple of other ways that give lower yields, and they are both natural. One way is to use grapes grown on hillsides. When it rains on a hillside the water drains off much more quickly than it does on flat land and the vines absorb less water. The result is smaller "unbloated" grapes. Smaller grapes have a higher ratio of skins to juice than larger grapes, and most of the flavor (and color) in wine comes from the grape skins.
The other way to get low yields is from old vines. As grapevines pass about 30 or 40 years of age they begin to decline in vigor and yield. Zinfandel vines are the longevity champions, and pre-Prohibition vineyards in California are not uncommon. When wineries use grapes from these vineyards they will usually put the words "Old Vines" on the label. The winner of the oldest vineyard title goes to the Renwood Winery of Amador County (in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains) for their Grand Pere Vineyard Zinfandel. The vines are over 130 years old.
We're talking about a vineyard planted during the administration of the eighteenth President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant!
Sometimes the three ways of getting lower yields from Zinfandel (pruning, using hillside vineyards, and using old vines) are all used by a winegrower or a winery. Sometimes a combination occurs naturally as with an old hillside vineyard. There's a winery in Sonoma (many of the top Zinfandel producers are in Sonoma) called Martinelli that produces a Zin from a vineyard called Jackass Hill. They say the vineyard got its name because it is so steep that it can only be farmed with a jackass. It's reputed to be the steepest vineyard in California. It just also happens that the vineyard was planted in 1905.
This would be a good time to describe what Zinfandel tastes like. Before 1980 or so the descriptors you always saw were "briary" and "brambly." I think it became an Emperor's new clothes type of situation where no one knew what they meant so the words fell by the wayside. (has anyone tasted brambles lately?") These days the word you see all the time is "berries," unidentified berries, as in "ripe berry fruit." "Cherry-berry" comes up a bit too, and raspberries make it in sometimes though not as often as cherries. "Ripe cherries, berries, and raspberry fruit," is about the textbook definition these days. Personally I think this varietal can take on a ripe peach component as well (think perfectly ripe peach on a warm day).
Another word that shows up in describing Zin is "Peppery," as in black pepper, not green or red. Old vines have roots that can go down a long way, searching for water it is said. In porous soil they can go down a couple hundred feet. When they do something like that they pick up traces of minerals that you can taste in the wine (fascinating beverage, isn't it?). In Zinfandel, as well as Syrah and Petite Sirah, the minerals show up as pepperiness or spiciness. Old vine Zinfandel usually has this added dimension of pepperiness or spiciness that adds complexity and interest to the wine. This spiciness and mineral quality is characteristic of old vines in other varieties too.
One mechanism that wine writers like to use to describe wines is a musical analogy. The might say something such as this white wine is one-note, or that red wine strikes a chord, or a First Growth Bordeaux is a whole orchestra, and Cabernet Sauvignon is like Beethoven where Pinot Noir is more like Mozart. I think that a better analogy is to movie actresses. Say that a 1st Growth Bordeaux would be akin to Meryl Streep and a Pinot Noir might be Audrey Hepburn, then Zinfandel would be the Pamela Anderson of wine-big & showy with more of everything. What this grape lacks in subtlety it makes up for on sheer enjoyment-it's eye candy (for your tongue).