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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
01/31/2011
Monday Manifestos
Zinfandel Secrets Revealed

By Charles Olken

I spent all of Saturday at the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) Grand Tasting in San Francisco. In conversations with as many of the three hundred winemakers in attendance as I could track down, I was told several times, and in no uncertain terms, the “secrets” of Zinfandel. And I would like to share them with you.

Now, you will have to bear with me a bit here, because, as is often the case in discussions about important wine topics, the “secrets” often contradict each other. But, hey, that is what makes it interesting. Besides, look at the fun we can have dissecting these secrets—some of which turn out to be self-evident on their faces regardless of the earnestness with which they were offered.

Item No. 1: “I am going to get back to making Zinfandel the way it was made in the 1970s”.

If the idea is to make lighter, more pertly balanced Zinfandel, then bring it on. But, as I remember the ‘70s, it was also the period of the first “late harvest” Zin boom with wineries like David Bruce, Mayacamas and others making wines up into the 17% range, often with residual sugar and tannin levels that would suck the moisture out of your tongue. So, I am going to assume that this secret has to do with trying to make Zin with taste and balance at alcohols levels under 14%. I’m all over that idea, but, folks, there is nothing magic about the 14% threshold. Balance, depth, focus, complexity remain the keys to success in any wine and for any grape.

Item No.2: “In this age of global warming and all kinds of trellising systems, Zinfandel wants to be made ripe or it will taste green”.

There is a great deal of truth to this sentiment until one looks behind it. Yes, most grapes are now grown in trellising systems for all kinds of reasons including increased yields, better ability to control leaf counts and shading, ease of picking. And, yes, many winemakers discovered that higher sugars also meant deeper wines. When the consumers started responding positively, the race was on and it is only in the last few years that the notion of lighter balance that is so much a part of the item above has come back into sway. For those of us who have been observing CA wines for several decades now, this swing in sentiment is not new. It is, however, going to be harder to achieve because of climate change and trellising systems that emphasize earlier and higher ripeness levels along with increased yields.

Item No. 3: “I’m working with a Zinfandel vineyard in the Carneros district in order to get less ripe grapes”.

If you asked most vineyardists to name the places where they would not put Zinfandel, the very cool Carneros District would certainly be on most lists. It is hard enough to ripen Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in many locations there, but the fact is that there are sheltered nooks and crannies that also make good Merlot and cool-climate Syrah so why not Zinfandel. I asked the winery owner/winemaker how he thought he was going to get away with it and he forthrightly answered that he would have to restrict yield and be at least somewhat generous with sun exposure. Zin sunburns easily, so the winery is walking a tightrope here, but gambit may produce some elegant and balanced Zinfandel if the idea plays out.

Item No. 4: “Too many people are trying to make Zinfandel into something it isn’t”.

Here we have the argument for overcropped,, trellis-trained, generic red wine to be sold under the Zin name at prices that are intended to cover for the lack of character. And, believe it or not, I have sympathy for this argument. Most Zinfandel in California is not grown in moderate warmth places that are conducive to making fine wine. And the world does drink a heck of a lot more of inexpensive plonk than it does pricey wine. It is the rare Cabernet of decent quality that comes with a price tag much below $20-25. Not so Zin. And especially not so Zin if the grapes have not been left to turn into raisins before they are picked. Zinfandel was often the “heart and soul” of good jug wine in days gone by. There is no reason why long-cropped and carefully grown Zin cannot have that role in today’s everyday table wines.

But, that is where my sympathy ends. I do not want to see us walk Zinfandel backwards to the 1960s in the name of “progress”. Let vineyards do what they can, and if they can make great wines, let them do it.

Item No. 5: “The South Will Rise Again”.

Said in jest by a winemaker who is having a hard time selling Zin but believes that his wines will recover along with the rest of the wine market. Yes, Zin has hit hard times for some makers but not for all. It is not Syrah, after all, which even the top producers are having a hard time selling. But, the key, as always is quality for the asking price. And, with Zinfandel suddenly having rushed up to $40, and sometimes more, for wines that were frequently keyed more on ripeness and oak than on fruit, balance and varietal precision, my vantage point on the world seems to suggest that “very big” will be too big for those makers whose wines do not also have the essential elements at their centers. Big Zinfandel is not going to disappear despite the distaste that some parts of the wine world have for it because there is a segment of the consuming public that likes it. Yet, just as in the late ‘70s when the public’s taste began to shift from bigness to “goodness”, so too is that shift clearly underway today, and, if the “South is going to rise again” for makers of outsized Zins, some of those makers are going to need to look for wines that taste like Zinfandel, not like raisins and oak.

Comments

Zinfandel Secrets
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:1/31/2011 7:47:52 AM

Item No. 1: Some Late-Harvest Zinfandels in the 1970s were actually quite soothing - think Port without the added fortification. I've been waiting for a revival of the Late-Harvest style, and perhaps that's what your winemaker was suggesting.

Item No. 2: Maybe the same vintner who once remarked to me that zinfandel has to pack at least 14.5 percent alcohol to avoid tasting green; a myth then, a myth now.

Item No. 3: Put them on a tall trellis.

Item No. 4: A perpetual complaint abut zinfandel. Face it, the grape is wonderfully versatile. Let the winemaker squeeze out its charms in whatever style he or she desires. I'm in Mexico, and for the life of me can't figure out why I can't find a single decent white zinfandel, and, yes, there can be a decent white zinfandel.

Item No. 5: Again, that's one of the joys of zinfandel: A style can be found to please most anyone, and the Big Boys do have their legions of followers. Several of them are likely to be playing for the Steelers and Packers this weekend.

Sorry to have missed ZAP this year, but appreciate being their vicariously through your reporting.

Correction
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:1/31/2011 8:10:51 AM

Geez, make that "there," not "their." Mexican coffee isn't as strong as the first cup in the U.s.

Zin Beliefs
by Christian Miller
Posted on:2/1/2011 9:44:50 AM

Item No. 1: “I am going to get back to making Zinfandel the way it was made in the 1970s”.

The fascinating thing about some of the great 70s Zins is just how low the alcohol levels were; some of the Lytton Springs clocked in under 13! (If the labeled alcohol was more or less accurate; is that a big if?) While there are plenty of producers aiming to get under 15 these days, 13 seems inconceivable. Why is that? 

Item No.2: “In this age of global warming and all kinds of trellising systems, Zinfandel wants to be made ripe or it will taste green”.

What is the flavor of "green" Zin? I've had green Cab, Merlot, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Syrah but never a truly green Zin. Is this really a threat?

Item No. 3: “I’m working with a Zinfandel vineyard in the Carneros district in order to get less ripe grapes”.

Maybe now I'll get to taste a green Zin? 

Item No. 4: “Too many people are trying to make Zinfandel into something it isn’t. Zinfandel was often the “heart and soul” of good jug wine in days gone by. There is no reason why long-cropped and carefully grown Zin cannot have that role in today’s everyday table wines."

Totally with you here: Zin can make a charming $5-10 quaffer at the right place and crop level.

Item No. 5: "The South Will Rise Again. Said in jest by a winemaker who is having a hard time selling Zin..."

Some smaller Zin producers are struggling for the same reasons as other small producers - too many producers and not enough distributors. Some big producers have a hard time selling Zin because it doesn't compete well as an item in a cheap line-priced big box brand. Some high end producers wish Zin could play in the ultra-pricey cult wine market. BUT in the aggregate, Zin sales have been growing fairly well for a decade. They must be doing something right.

No Subject
by Christian Miller
Posted on:2/1/2011 9:46:40 AM

Sheesh, what a mess. Sorry - I can seem to find a text or html editor here.

Zin Lives
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/1/2011 10:02:55 AM

Hi Christian--

Not to worry. It is next to impossible to edit these items once they go up.

I have not tried to work with the HTML button on the insert form so I have no idea what it does. I am just happy to type. The formatting in the blog is done by my computer literate son. I know nothing.

As for your comments about Zin, they are very much appreciated. Zin bunches tend to have both very ripe and green berries in them and the lower the ripeness, the greater the amount of green berries. The greenness is not herbal or grassy so much as a tart, underripe flavor.

I am hoping the Carneros experiment works out, but it is a risk.

 

 

Green Zin?
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:2/1/2011 5:35:13 PM

Christian,

I am very muhc in agreemnt with Charlie here, and, yes, while latter-day Zin is too often the epitome of over-the-top-ripeness, the varietal is prone to uneven ripening within given clusters and can take on a very tart, underripe berry aspect. Bottlings exhibiting these ripe/green contradictions have been fewer of late, but we still see it here and there. I fear that Carneros Zinfandel just might make the point but will wait to see the results.

Green Zin
by Christian Miller
Posted on:2/2/2011 7:24:37 PM

I do recall the uneven ripening syndrome (hens 'n chicks?). On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if a small amount of it contributes to a wine's complexity; and if complexity can be stripped out via careful sorting of only the "perfectly ripened" (maybe overripe?) berries or bunches.

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