Wine School

In Zinfandel, Brawn Wins Out

Credit...Serge Bloch

Updated | Aug. 1, 2014

Wine School, a monthly column, invites you to drink wine with Eric Asimov. In each installment, Mr. Asimov chooses a type of wine for you to try at home. After a month, Mr. Asimov posts his reaction to the wine and addresses readers’ thoughts and questions. June’s assignment was Riesling. July’s assignment was Zinfandel; Mr. Asimov shares his thoughts on this wine below.

In wine as in all fields, people are drawn toward what they like. Personal taste is a rich, compelling and mysterious force, which must always be respected even if it cannot be entirely explained. Its vagaries are displayed prominently in any discussion of zinfandel, a wine that seems to have a powerful polarizing effect.

Welcome back to Wine School, where each month we choose a particular wine to explore and then reconvene four weeks later to share impressions and insights. The idea is to drink that wine with consideration, in a natural setting with food, friends or family. By paying careful attention to the wine in an atmosphere that emphasizes curiosity and pleasure, the hope is to achieve a greater sense of ease and confidence and a better understanding of our own tastes. If you already feel comfortable, Wine School is an opportunity to reconsider your assumptions, sharpen your observations and share your thoughts.

The subject here is zinfandel, a wine that cries out for re-examination given the entrenched opinions that so many people seem to have about it. No wonder. Zinfandel nowadays is most often a big, potent wine with the sort of forceful personality that practically requires consumers to take a stand. You either love it or leave it.

I’m afraid I’m one of those people who largely has left it, though I once loved it. As I became entranced with wine as a graduate student in the early 1980s, zinfandel was one of my favorites. It was fruity, which was easy to understand, yet leavened with an underlying spiciness, which made it interesting enough to return to again and again.

Over the years, though, zinfandel and I took different paths. The prevailing style of zinfandel seemed to get bigger and weightier, with alcohol levels climbing to overwhelming heights, 16 percent or more, and flavors often seeming jammy and baked. I was heading in the opposite direction, more taken with subtle, nuanced wines that were made to complement food at the table rather than to impress with a sip. Zinfandel, in my mind, had become like port, something to nurse after the meal or pour over the ice cream.

Credit...Serge Bloch

Tastes change. The more different wines we drink, the more our preferences develop and the more important it is to retain open minds. Otherwise, we risk becoming narrow and intolerant, confusing personal preferences with merit. That’s what I believe, at least. The focus on zinfandel last month obliged me to test those beliefs.

Certainly, zinfandel has its fans. “I love a big, powerful zinfandel,” Ken Elmer of Northampton, Mass., wrote. “I’ll leave the nuance thing to other wines.”

Other readers shared my concern, especially at this time of year. “It was easy for me to skip this month’s lesson,” Bauskern of New England wrote. “I cringed at the thought of drinking ‘big’ or ‘powerful’ zinfandels, as some readers described them, in the heat of the summer.”

Ken in Baltimore wrote: “Zinfandel? In July? I’ll return to this in November.”

I understand the reflex seasonal response that many people have, but I don’t necessarily agree. I could understand the notion of drinking nothing but light-bodied whites and gentle reds in summer if I were eating only delicate foods. But isn’t the summer grilling season, too? Aren’t people at least occasionally cooking thick steaks, sauce-glazed ribs and burgers? Conversely, do we only drink heavy reds in the cold? Isn’t the winter prime oyster season? In this air-conditioned age, when people carry sweaters to restaurants even on the hottest days, seasonality means less than it once did.

The grape best known as zinfandel and most identified with California actually originated in Croatia, where it was first known as tribidrag. It traveled to the United States early in the 19th century and flourished in California later in the 1800s when it was planted extensively.

Some of those vineyards are now among the oldest in North America, having survived Prohibition, Depression and phylloxera, the vine-killing aphid that ravaged grapes of European origin. Vineyards like these are American treasures, and organizations like the Historic Vineyard Society are working to preserve them.

Though many of these vineyards are known for their zinfandel, they are not necessarily 100 percent zinfandel. In addition to zinfandel, they may include petite sirah, carignan, alicante bouchet and sometimes grapes that have not been identified. One of these older vineyards, Lytton Estate in the Dry Creek Valley, was a source for one of our three recommended wines, the 2011 Ridge Lytton Springs. The grapes, mostly zinfandel with some petite sirah and carignan, came from vines 50 to 110 years old.

Credit...Serge Bloch

What does the age of a vineyard have to do with the wine? As the vines pass middle age, the yields tend to decline and the grapes become smaller and more concentrated. Assuming the vineyard is planted in a good place, the wines may become more intense and complex. Sadly, terms like “old vines,” or “vieilles vignes” in French, have little definition or legal meaning when used on bottles. They are often abused by marketers, which makes the documentation work by groups like the Historic Vineyard Society so important.

These old zinfandel vineyards can be found all over California, from the Sierra Foothills to Sonoma, Napa and Contra Costa counties, to Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande and even to Baja California, testifying not only to the popularity of zinfandel among early viticulturalists but to its ability to succeed in different sorts of terroir.

Of the three recommended zinfandels, two, the 2011 Ridge and the 2012 Dashe, came from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. The third, the 2012 Juvenile from Turley, is labeled California because it is made from young vines from several appellations.

For me, the three wines could not have been more different. The Turley was pure, with waves of raspberry flavor tuned with laserlike precision. It was dense and mouth-filling, but not heavy. Nor was it baked or jammy. But (and this is a big but) I just did not want to drink this wine. Instead of an aftertaste that inspired a next sip, it left a hot feeling in my mouth, and it seemed to overwhelm the flavor of my dinner, seared skirt steak.

It was, in fact, 15.5 percent alcohol, and though it bothered me, it didn’t deter others. “It was inviting with a fruit-forward start and supple spices that follow,” wrote Howard Weintraub of Harrison, N.Y. “It paired well with a seared veal chop done on the grill.”

Harley Mazuk of Boyds, Md., said the Turley “invites not only the next sip but the next gulp.”

I found the other two wines more agreeable. The Dashe was smooth and deliciously juicy, with an intriguing spiciness. It did have a touch of heat as well, but not enough to deter me from another glass.

Best of all was the Ridge. It was beautifully balanced without heat, though, at 14.4 percent, it had virtually the same alcohol content as the Dashe. It was spicy, earthy and herbal, more complex than the other wines, and a bit tannic, too. Still, these were big wines, and I found myself more conscious of their size and power than I would have preferred.

Credit...Serge Bloch

While I liked the wines well enough, it was not a transformative experience. I will confess, I appreciate the beauty of zinfandel in other, smaller-scale wines, like Dashe’s Les Enfants Terrible, which is made almost like a cru Beaujolais, and Broc Cellars Vine Starr zinfandel, which is made in a lighter, more vibrant style, at 12.7 percent. It’s worth pointing out that zinfandel is not big by definition. Ridge’s 1975 Lytton Springs was a mere 11.7 percent, and by one recent authoritative report was drinking beautifully this year.

Still, I was happy to see that some readers were converted. “This is the first zinfandel I’ve drank in decades,” said Seancpa of Pleasant Mount, Pa. “It’s been an eye-opener.” Schap329 of Richmond, Va., likened the Ridge to a “majestic gothic cathedral,” adding, “Zinfandel just redeemed itself for me.”

Some readers took me to task for recommending young wines, pointing out that zinfandel ages well and reaches its peak around 5 to 10 years. Point well taken, though, as with Bordeaux and riesling, it’s not easy to buy well-aged wines. If we are going to share the drinking experience, we’re going to have to settle for youth.

In the end, differences of taste and opinion are beneficial. It assures a diversity of wines, which ought to make everybody happy. That, after all, is the goal.

Your next assignment: Chablis.

Previously in Wine School ...

In July, readers were assigned to investigate Zinfandel. You can join the conversation about this wine by finding the wines and answering the questions that Eric Asimov poses below.

Until now, we’ve explored Old World classics: Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Sancerre, dry German riesling. This month, we shift to a New World original: zinfandel.

No, zinfandel is not an American grape. As with the vast majority of world-class wines, its origin is Old World. If you want to read about it in “Wine Grapes,” the authoritative encyclopedia by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, you are advised to look under “tribidrag,” as it’s called in Croatia, zinfandel’s birthplace.

Such rigid taxonomy may provoke eye-rolling among practical-minded Americans, who rightly note that whatever recognition is due tribidrag is a result of the grape’s having traveled to California and become known worldwide as zinfandel. Tribidrag also has another moniker, primitivo, as it’s called in the Puglia region of Italy.

In California, zinfandel has had moments of wide embrace and others of dismissal. Its dominant stylistic expression seems to vary by decade and has ranged from clear, taut and spicy to extravagant, huge and syrupy.

I’ll admit I’ve had my own struggles with zinfandel. I’m not a fan of the blockbuster style that was in vogue in the first decade of this century. But as with so many wines, a stylistic shift has occurred with zinfandel, with more producers gravitating toward fresher, nuanced wines.

The three zinfandels I suggest you look for this month more or less encompass the range of styles:

Dashe Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2012, $21

Turley California Zinfandel Juvenile 2012, $30

Ridge Dry Creek Valley Lytton Springs 2011, $35

Dashe gravitates toward the fresher style, while at one time Turley epitomized the extravagant style, though its wines, while still big, have become livelier and more precise. Ridge is consistently right down the middle, as it has been for decades. Comparing the three would be particularly rewarding.

As always, not everybody will be able to find these examples. Each of these three producers makes more than a few zinfandel cuvées. The others are fine, too, and as an alternative you might consider wines from Nalle, Frog’s Leap, Ravenswood, Sky, Porter Creek, Bedrock, Green & Red, Broc Cellars, Limerick Lane, Rafanelli, Outpost, Quivira, Seghesio and Neyers.

Zinfandel will complement burgers, barbecued ribs and other robust meats. It will also go well with grilled sausages, pizza, even eggplant Parmesan, although you may have more difficulty finding good matches with the bigger styles.

Temperature is important: If the wine is too warm, especially in the summer, it will be flaccid and fatiguing. You don’t want to serve it icy cold, just cool, after maybe 20 minutes in the fridge.