May 26, 2006

Zinfandel tasting

My tasting group met again recently to taste Zinfandel, so hot in the 1990s but taking more of a back seat in wine circles these days in favor of Syrah.

I love good Zinfandel, a grape that gives about as widely varying wines as you’ll find. And I’m not immediately put off by high alcohol Zinfandel as I am, for example, with Pinot Noir. Like with southern Rhone reds, sometimes a little warmth can add to the exuberance of Zinfandel, which really shouldn’t ever be shy. With a bucket of ribs, nothing beats a big Zin.

With that in mind, I completely enjoyed this tasting even when the wines weren’t exactly elegant or graceful.

We tasted five wines blind, the first being the 2003 Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” from the Cox Vineyard in Mendocino County. Dark ruby violet in color, it showed a fumey, coconutty, waxy red berry aroma, the most obviously oaked wine in the bunch. In the mouth, full bodied with wood tannin and charred berry fruit, maybe a hint of residual sugar. Graceful? No. Elegant? No. Something I’d buy and cellar? No. But with that bucket of ribs, yes. My least favorite here and still worthwhile. Note that the “wild” part is natural yeast fermentation, which didn’t give out until the wine reached more than 15% alcohol.

Next came an older dark ruby wine, with minty brambly zinberry aromas, the mint giving a high-toned component to the perfume. Silky in the mouth, round and mature, not terribly deep but elegant with bright acids and delicious. This was the 1996 Ridge Geyserville, an old vine blend of around 75% Zinfandel and the rest Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Mataro (Mourvedre). Interesting thing about this wine, on release it was quite oaky and not “classic” Ridge. But a few years have yielded a wonderfully integrated old vine wine, classically California.

The third wine was more mature but not old looking, with a muted aroma at first. Then fresher fruit, some volatility but nice complexity, I rated this first on the aroma alone. In the mouth, it’s finely tannic with bright red berry flavors, winey with good length and an integrated feel. This was the 1996 Ravenswood Monte Rosso Vineyard from Louis Martini’s old Sonoma Valley property.

The next wine was the darkest, with a youthful dark red violet color and a sweet, pie filling aroma. Buttery oak, waxy smelling with some pleasant youthful herbaceousness amid the superripe quailities. Big, ripe and round in the mouth, with grape tannin and some obvious alcohol, chewy and tannic but nicely done if a touch overoaked. This was the 2003 Dashe Dry Creek Valley, made by Mike Dashe, formerly of Ridge, who’s made some Zinfandel I’ve perferred more than this one.

Last was a ringer of sorts, the younger vine 2003 Maryhill Zinfandel from the Columbia Valley in Washington state. The cheapest of the lot, but not at all out of class here. Dark ruby with a positiviely huge black pepper aroma, with sweet pie filling and dry herb aroma, all very interesting. Jammy, even a bit goopy but with good tannic structure and even some grapefruity acid that might be added (or not) but seemed well integrated either way. Not bad at all, another good one for a bucket of ribs.

To cap the evening, we tried a half bottle blind. Turbid with sediment with some maturity and a fragrant, ripe but restrained slightly raisiny, spicy aroma. Mildly sweet on the palate with nice balance and concentration, overall a terrific late harvest zinfandel without any volatility. It turns out to be the 1993 Ridge Essence, from the Dusi Ranch in Paso Robles if memory serves.

In sum, a terrific evening of fun, loud wines that’s rekindled my love for Zinfandel. You should try some too.

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