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Tuesday Tributes
Zinfandel Is Changing—Perhaps

By Charles Olken

It is a struggle between old and new, between young and wizened, between those who believe that a wine’s first obligation is to be lower in alcohol than it is today and those who like the depth, richness and expressiveness of riper wines.

The most obvious battlegrounds for this drama are occurring in Chardonnay (see yesterday’s blog for a report) and Cabernet Sauvignon. No one is disputing the notion that a very high percentage of those wines are riper in flavor and higher in alcohol than they were twenty to forty years ago. The famous wines of the 1970s, upon which the California wine boom of that decade was built, seemed, for the most part, to be under 14% and they were all pretty tasty. Admittedly, Zinfandel could be riper than most other grapes and fair number of wines were routinely zooming past 14% by mid-decade and beyond.

Aside from the very late harvest bottlings in the 17% range, one could find few complaints about excess ripeness in those days. It was not until later that we and others began to worry—and worry we did. But, as Kent Rosenblum proclaimed so correctly, “Increased ripeness brings increased intensity, and I like that, and so do my customers”. He might have added, and we can because we have tasted almost all of his wines from that era, that it was the fruit and not the ripeness that was central to the wines’ characters.

Today, our tastings of Zinfandel are showing the influence of the latest consumer sentiments for fruit and enhanced balance instead of ripeness. We see it two ways. The first is the gradual increase in the recommendable Zinfandels with alcohols below 14%. That change is undeniable, but it is also something of a drop in the bucket in comparison the alcohol in most Zinfandels before increased ripeness became the order of the day.

The second movement, comes in two parts, and it is this movement that is shaping Zinfandel as we know it far more than any drift into under 14% Zinfandel. The combination of somewhat moderated alcohols, but still above 14%, and the accompanying increases in balancing acidity are resulting in deep but somewhat lighter wines whose uses with food are that much more enhanced. And for our money here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, it is the rise in acidity and the concomitant lowering of pH in Zinfandel that is the more significant trend.

I said in the title that Zinfandel is changing—perhaps. It will take some years of more regular harvests before we can separate observable fact into trend or weather. Zinfandel is changing. Some makers will likely try to keep their alcohol levels down. The question is whether they can outpace Mother Nature and the return of sunshine to wine country.


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Za Zin!
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:7/24/2012 6:14:20 PM

Hey Charlie, haven't you witnessed a change in Zin for a while now? I can't recall the year, but I've noticed a trend towards more soft and pretty (fruit and balance) zins over hulking styles for a while now. I think zins were made for the later style-but hey, this is my preference which is obviosuly not shared among the comunity. But if I'm looking for soft and pretty there are plenty of other reds that can fit the bill, you know?

Keep The Change
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/24/2012 6:40:12 PM

Hi Pam--

There have always been soft and luscious Zins (think Rosenblum, the better Murphy-Goodes, Dutcher Crossing) and what I see now is somewhat lower alcohols in general, but of course, not for every wine, and thus somewhat greater accessibility.

However, there are also many more Zins with increased vitality and brightness. And we are seeing a few under 14%. Now, in the past few years, wines at that level were far too angular and green. So, the operative question is are we seeing vintage gifts or are we seeing deliberate choices and actions in the vineyard and winery that will continue that style when we go back to normal harvests--as 2012 is shaping up to be.

Za Zin!
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:7/24/2012 6:46:42 PM

It will be interesting to see where the style goes in the comming year(s). Do you have a few recos from your recent tasting at or below 14%? I'd like to check them out..

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