The all-American joys of zinfandel
by David Marglin
Zinfandel ("zin" for short) is a red grape that's made into two kinds of wine:
red zinfandel and
For years, most zin grapes were poured into
a bubble-gummy, pinkish liquid popular at art openings and student
parties. (White zinfandel
still remains a party wine for the younger set; as
one savvy waitress I know observed, "When customers order a glass of
I automatically card them. Period.")
This public image meant that until the late '80s, few wine producers put much
effort into creating fine red zin. It was a hobby wine, not widely sold. Public
attention was focused on other red-wine grapes: merlot,
Unlike those vinifera (the technical term for the great European grape
varietals), zinfandel is a purely American wine. Its origins may be uncertain
-- some say it was imported from Yugoslavia or southern Italy; others claim the
East Coast -- but this much is certain: almost no zinfandel wines of any merit
are being made outside California.
A good red zin is a tremendous experience. With its bold
can be paired with a variety of foods, and it's appropriate anywhere from one's
porch to the most posh restaurants. It is a high-alcohol wine (averaging around
14 percent alcohol), with intense fruity accents. When tasting a red zinfandel,
try to pinpoint what fruits the wine conjures up: often it will be berries,
though sometimes dark cherries or pomegranates come to mind.
Versatility is red zinfandel's strong suit. Red zins pair well with strong
flavors; plenty of chicken dishes and most red-meat dishes take kindly to their
lush, lively flavors. Serve zinfandel with dinner, and you'll be amazed by how
smoothly the wine makes the shift from appetizer to appetizer, and then to
entree. Even dessert won't completely destroy the jammy flavors of a top-notch
zinfandel (and there are some good
zins, even higher in alcohol,
that drink almost like port
and are served with dessert).
Zins are drinkable when they're young, and I'm positively ecstatic about two
recent vintages of red zinfandel: 1994 and 1995. The Wine Spectator
recently gave the 1995 vintage an overall score of 96 out of 100, and the 1994
was just behind at 95 points. Those are impressive numbers.
In terms of location, Napa and Sonoma counties still lead the way in producing
yummy red zins, but two other California counties -- Amador and San Luis Obispo
-- are the source of some excellent wines. Two wineries to seek out are
Renwood, in the former, and Ridge, in the latter.
So if you want to try a big, eclectic, fruity wine that pairs well with fish,
poultry, and all manner of red meat, a bold young zinfandel may be the way to
go. And though you may not find it being served at parties quite yet, when it
comes to dining out, zin is definitely in.
Correction. To err is human, to forgive di-vine. So, thanks to
Marcel Lachenmann, an attentive reader, who pointed out that the Château
de la Greffiere is grown in Burgundy, and not in the Loire, as I stated in my
The following recommendations give a sense of the range of zinfandels on the
market. (Note: dollar amounts are approximate per-bottle retail prices.
Although these wines are widely available, call your retailer to check if stock
*** Rabbit Ridge Sonoma County 1995 Sonoma County Zinfandel ($13.99)
Silky smooth with a slight strawberry finish, this solid blend hints of
licorice. Rabbit Ridge generally makes high-quality, affordably priced wines.
**** Hendry Mt. Veeder Brandlin Ranch Zinfandel 1994 ($18.99)
A friend of mine swears that grapes grown on a hillside are the secret to
truly great red wine. Grapes for this wine grow on eastern Mount Veeder, where
old vines luxuriate in cool, moist air, 1000 feet above the Pacific. Go
**** Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 1995 ($22.50)
Ridge, long known for exceptional cabernets, specializes in
wines. From the Dusi Ranch in San Luis Obispo County, south of San Francisco,
this spicy concoction is a wicked treat. It packs tons of blackberry flavor and
opens up vistas of delightful summer twilight flavors. Beguilingly complex.
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