02/01/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Zinfandel Styles: Sublime to Ridiculous

I attended the 21st annual Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, or ZAP, Festival Grand Tasting in San Francisco this past weekend. There I tasted over 200 current release Zins. I was vividly reminded that this historically significant California grape comes in a remarkable variety of styles -- from "white" Zins, which are really sweetish blush rosés; to raspberry and spicy flavored medium-bodied reds with a touch of pepper; to heavy-bodied, black-fruited, raisiny and pruney wines; all the way to very sweet late harvest and "port-style" Zins.

Zins, especially those made from low yielding, ancient vines -- vines that are over 80 to 100-plus years old, like we are blessed to have in California -- can be as complex and balanced as any red wine, although usually less ageworthy than more tannic and structured Cabernets and Syrahs. Others, however, are extremely high-alcohol fruit bombs. In other words, Zin styles range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Zinfandel is a truly Californian grape, even though it didn't originate here. There is more of it grown in this State than anywhere else -- as of 2010, it was the third most widely planted grape, after Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon -- and it is here that it became widely popular.

Carole Meredith

U.C. Davis Professor Emeritus Carole Meredith finally cleared up the mystery of Zin's origins in 2002 when, after a long search, she and her DNA profiling team found a match between California's Zin and an ancient grape that used to be widely grown in Dalmatia in what is now Croatia, Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Some years earlier, it was confirmed that Zin and Italy's Primitivo were the same grape, but since records showed that Zin was grown earlier in the U.S. than Primitivo was in Italy (1830 versus late 1800s), Zin had to have been imported to this country from somewhere other than Italy.

It turns out Zinfandel was actually first imported to the U.S. from the Austrian imperial nursery (the Austrian empire used to include Croatia) by George Gibbs of Long Island, probably in 1829. It was first grown in New England before coming to California in the 1850s. It became a success with California growers because of its high yields, producing light, fruity wines that were popular with miners and other California pioneers.

The grape's success here led to it being widely planted, including in locations in the Central Valley and elsewhere that get a lot of heat. Unfortunately, such grapes get to high sugar levels with little maturity in flavor development.

Zin vines at A. Rafanelli

Zin is actually a tricky grape to grow, as producers will readily tell you, because of its unusually uneven ripening and thin-skinned berries. The uneven ripening leads to clusters containing both harsh, unripe green grapes and very ripe grapes. The thin skin causes the grapes that are ripe to turn to raisins if not picked quickly. To pick and sort only the ripe grapes, and to pick them at just the right time, is an expensive proposition, often requiring multiple passes through the vineyard. This means that most high quality Zins tend to be on the pricey side, running at least $30 or more.

Another distinctive characteristic of the grape is its tendency to ripen at very high sugar levels. When grape sugar is fermented, it turns to alcohol. The alcohol levels resulting from Zin's high sugars used to kill off the fermenting strains of yeast by the time those yeasts had fermented the sugars down to around 14% alcohol, leaving a high degree of "residual sugar," or unfermented grape sugar. The result was wines that tasted quite sweet.

In recent years, however, producers and yeast manufacturers have managed to select out and grow large quantities of specialized yeasts that don't die out during fermentation when the alcohol level continues to rise. This has made it possible to ferment Zins with high grape sugar levels all the way dry, yielding heavy bodied wines with previously unheard of levels of alcohol for unfortified wines -- 16 to 17% and higher.

Like most grapes, the climate and soils where Zinfandel is grown have a major impact on its style. Cooler growing regions like Russian River Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains and Mendocino County tend to produce lower alcohol, more complex wines. Very warm regions like Amador County and Lodi tend to produce jammy, black-fruited wines. One of the most ideal growing regions in the State for balanced, rounded Zins is the Dry Creek Valley AVA in Sonoma County.

Clement and Clay Mauritson of Mauritson/Rockpile Winery

Among the producers of the most complex and balanced Zins are Black Sears, Bucklin, Carol Shelton, Charter Oak, Mauritson/Rockpile Winery, Robert Biale and Storybook Mountain. Carol Shelton's Wild Thing Cox Vineyard is a particularly good value at about $16. Producers with access to very old vine vineyards who make outstanding Zins include Bedrock, Limerick Lane, Puccioni and Vino Noceto. Very good Zins in the riper style are produced by Collier Falls, Deerfield Ranch, Gamba, JC Cellars, Outpost and Turley. One of the most reliable producers of Zins that are unusually ageworthy is Ridge, especially their Lytton Springs and Geyserville bottlings. And for a large production winery, the Zins from Ravenswood, founded and still overseen by Joel Peterson, known as "the Godfather of Zin," are worthy of attention.

Joel Peterson

For my complete report on this year's ZAP grand tasting, including many producer profiles and tasting notes on 227 wines, see my blog here.