Every day, true zinfandel lovers unwittingly commit the seven deadly sins. They gulp gluttonously, envy other zealots' collections, lust for the next smooth and fruity selection, and covet their latest zin bargain. Sloth and anger don't fit into any good wine scene, but certainly American pride does. Zinfandel is the only real American grape, and no other country has mastered the subtlety, power, and versatility in this fruity yet robust specimen. Yes, we should be pretty darn proud of our zinfandels
Like most Americans, zinfandel arrived as an immigrant. The true lineage of the grape remains a wine-geeky controversy. One argument says an Italian grape called Primitivo fathered it, and aspiring gold diggers transported it to California. The other reigning theory points down a similar path, but with Croatian heritage. Then we have the patriotic — albeit, crackpot — optimists who insist zinfandel is an indigenous grape, discovered while panning for pay dirt. Whatever the genealogy, we're lucky we still have it at all — starting in the late 1800s, the neglected grape almost went extinct before it was reincarnated in the 1980s as a sweet, blushing grog.
Which forms part of the PR problem red zinfandel currently faces. Most people think pink when the grape is mentioned — an homage to white zinfandel. In the early '80s, Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home accidentally created this wildly popular blush wine, and the name blistered into American culture. It proved a mixed blessing, saving many old vines from ruinous uprooting, but also condemning zin to eternal sweetness. The 1990s, however, saw rebirth in the grape's popularity, this time as a dry red. Pioneering wineries such as Ravenswood and Ridge sired full-bodied, jammy, gutsy wines — a far cry from syrupy rosé. At first, snooty cabernet lovers shunned them, calling them brash and untamed, but zin's irresistible charm and whiff of raspberries, blueberries, or blackberries hooked them like heroin.
Since then, winemakers have run hog wild, crafting lighter styles as well as late-harvest dessert wines and ports. By nature, zinfandels, with thicker skins and robust flavor, taste heavier than lighter-bodied merlots and have smoother tannins than cabernet sauvignon. Many meatier zinfandels are amenable to aging, capable of improving with a few years of lying on their side. But most of them are fine for guzzling as soon as you hit the door.
Here, I present seven excellent examples of the best zinfandels recently uncovered, judged for both quality and value. Deadly and downright fabulous, these wines can turn the stodgiest of snobs into a gluttonous fool.
Sbragia 2006 Zinfandel Dry Creek Worth the extra money. Sophisticated and refined with dried black cherry, sweet vanilla, raspberry, blackberry, black pepper, and licorice. Delicious. $28.
Ravenswood 2007 Zen of Zin Sonoma This wine backs up its cutesy name with quaffable character. It's not bold and alcoholic but medium-bodied with subtle chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla spice, black cherry, and blackberry. $11.
Ravenswood 2006 Zinfandel Lodi A zin that's full-figured, gushing with blackberry, toasted oak spiciness, rich plum and good acidity on the finish. Great value. $12.
Layer Cake 2007 Primitivo Puglia (Italy) Had to throw at least one "heritage" zinfandel in here. Originates in Puglia — the heel of the boot — featuring ripe blueberry and jammy black cherry mixed in with earthy tar and a port-like finish. $12.
Joel Gott 2007 Zinfandel California This classic, smooth operator has blackberry, black cherry cough syrup (but in a good way), cut green grass, forest floor earthiness, mild tannins, and enough acidity to balance it out. Well done. $12.
Napa Cellars 2006 Zinfandel Napa A fantastic offering from a cab-heavy winery, it's loaded with spicy, bright-red cherry, smoky vanilla, and ripe blackberry. $22.
Cellar #8 2006 Zinfandel California Incredibly affordable. Raspberry, smoky black cherry, and silky tannins with a finish of leather and semi-sweet chocolate. More restrained than other super-ripe zins out there. $10.