February 21, 2008

Cheap, Classic Zinfandel

Being a native Californian, I left my home state some years back with a few reservations. One of them was about leaving zinfandel behind.

Zinfandel isn’t from California, but it’s an archetype of California wine like no other. Sure, Napa has its cabernet and the Sonoma coast has its pinot noir. But California had zinfandel long before either of those grapes meant much.

Nothing seems to reflect the ripeness, the precociousness, the tradition-busting nature of California better in my opinion than zinfandel. Sometimes I wonder if all red wine in California, if you aren’t careful, ends up tasting like zinfandel.

Zinfandel was also my conduit to winemaking. I thought I’d be in California forever, making zinfandel in my garage and hoping to go pro some day. Zinfandel was my first winemaking love. Turns out I’m in Oregon and that zinfandel in the garage is actually pinot noir. It seems pinot noir has become the love of my winemaking life.

Still, I love a good zinfandel. The trouble is, aside from the relatively poor selection of California wine here in Oregon, too many zins bore me with overripeness, high alcohol, and too much new oak flavor. So I find that I don’t drink much zin any more.

Even my wife questions me if I bring up a bottle of zin. Are you sure, she asks. Is it going to taste like vodka? Isn’t there a nice Italian wine down there?

All that changed with a simple, inexpensive wine that in one glass brought me back to zinfandel glory. Yes, it’s the 2004 Sierra Vista Zinfandel from El Dorado County in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The wine itself is medium ruby in color, with a fresh, classically zinfandel berry aroma mixed with a little tobacco and pepper. In the mouth, it’s silky with that classic berry flavor, bright acidity with very soft tannin and a clean finish. Hardly wine for the ages, this modest bottle reminded me of delicious zinfandel I’ve had over the years but for whatever reason don’t seem to find so much any more.

This wine probably costs around $10. So for cheap wine, this is really good deal. If you like classically bright and medium bodied zinfandel, this might even be a great deal. A “bigger” wine will “blow it away” in a tasting. But if you’re looking for something interesting for the dinner table, this one’s a rare California bargain.

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