03/15/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Zinfandel: The Highs and Lows of ZAP 2013

I wrote about the origins of California's heritage grape, currently the State's third most planted variety after Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, in a post here a year ago. Since then, the long awaited definitive tome on wine grape varieties from Jancis Robinson, et al, was published.

In that book, Wine Grapes, varieties are listed according to the oldest name proven to have been used for the grape. After reviewing the continuing research conclusively establishing Zin's roots in Croatia's central Dalmatia, Jancis and her cohorts placed the entry for Zin under its original and oldest Croatian name. That name has been found in literature going back to the early 1500s--i.e., predating the use of the more modern Croatian name, Crljenak Kaštelanski, that I mentioned in my earlier post. That original Croatian name is Tribidrag.

Strangely, the multiday annual festival I attended again this year in San Francisco devoted to the grape is still called the ZAP Zinfandel Festival. (ZAP stands for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, the group that has organized the event for 22 years.) I guess titling something a "Tribidrag Event" in San Francisco might conjure up images of something other than a large scale winetasting.

This expansive and well organized event--extending over four days--is unusual amongst wine festivals devoted to a particular variety, or family of varieties, in that it features virtually all of the very top producers. In addition to the greats, there are many producers of every other stripe--from very good to mediocre to essentially industrial swill. In that sense, it's a very democratic event, with a small "d," incorporating just about everything that fits under Zinfandel's big tent.

As I mentioned in last year's post, Zin is not an easy grape from which to make fine wine. It ripens very unevenly - leading to clusters containing both harshly acidic, unripe grapes and very ripe grapes. It also has a thin skin that causes the ripe grapes to turn to raisins if not picked soon enough. 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. For this reason, the best Zins don't come cheap. They typically run from $30 to $50 and up.

Another distinctive characteristic of the grape is its tendency to ripen at very high sugar levels. When the grapes are picked too late, this can lead to high alcohol wines that often lack the balancing acidity that helps wines taste fresh and lively on the palate.

oldest Zin and mixed black vineyard in Sonoma - Old Hill Ranch

One of the great viticultural riches of California are our old vine "mixed black" vineyards, which were planted primarily with Zin in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but with other black grapes planted here and there as well, especially grapes that immigrant winemakers from Italy and France found supplied some of the qualities Zin often lacked--e.g., Petite Sirah and Syrah for their tannins and color.

In these old vine vineyards--some with vines over 100 years old--the reduced vigor as a result of the vine age helps counter some of Zin's typical characteristics, improving balance, and the lower yields lead to concentration of flavors in fewer grapes.

Most of the best Zins at ZAP came from old vineyards like these, where the very low yields and increasing demand for fruit from these sources also mean higher priced wines.

So what were the best Zins at ZAP this year? Who are the top producers to go to, when money is no object, and who else makes very good wine for those of us living on a budget?

I managed to sample 207 wines in almost nine hours at two of the events making up the festival this year: the food pairing Thursday evening session called Epicuria and the concluding grand tasting on Sunday. That was less than the total I tasted at the grand tasting alone last year, as a result of taking more time with most of the top producers to give as thorough an evaluation at an event like this as possible.

As a result of the diverse quality spectrum, my scores ranged more widely than they do at most themed events of this kind--from a low of 80 points to a high of 95. The low scorers generally ended up there due to imbalance in the wine--alcohol levels being so high that it rendered the wine "hot"; acid levels so low that the unbalanced sweetness rendered the wine "flabby"; or the oak influence overwhelming the fruit (either from aging in oak barrels, or the use of oak "adjuncts," as they've become known in the industry--oak chips, cubes or powder).

The latter imbalance--overwhelming aromas and flavors of oak--seems particularly unfortunate and self inflicted. In my opinion, Zin's lighter body and more delicate aromas do best with neutral oak--barrels that have been previously used and therefore impart little or no oak flavor. Zin, or Tribidrag, is generally not a grape that is capable of absorbing a huge amount of new oak, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon or Petite Sirah. I therefore urge California's Zin makers who are currently using a lot of new wood, or oak adjuncts, to try dialing it back. Give Zin's distinctive briary, ripe currant fruit a chance to shine, without obscuring it with the vanilla, caramel, bourbon and chocolate flavors one gets from high levels of new oak.

The greatest Zin producers, whose wines I've sampled under other circumstances as well and that are consistently impressive, responsible for one or more wines at this event that I rated 92+ points or higher, are Ballentine, Bedrock, Black Sears, Bucklin, Charter Oak, Dashe, Grgich Hills, Hendry, Puccioni, Robert Biale, Scott Harvey, Terra d'Oro, Three, Turley and Vino Noceto.

The very top wine of this tasting for me, at 95 points, was the 2010 Black Sears, with its rich palate and complex aromas and flavors of black currant, lavender, pepper and graphite. The fruit source here is not an extremely old vineyard, but one planted in the mid-1970s on the top of Howell Mountain in Napa, showing the minerally character and balance one often finds in mountain fruit. The Black Sears Zin is usually available through the winery's website for $50.

I rated a half dozen other Zins 94 or 94+ points, which for me is a very high score, reserved for complex, flavorful wines that are superbly balanced and ageworthy. Two of these were from Robert Biale, a truly great producer of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah: the 2011 Old Kraft Vineyard (scheduled for a Fall release) and 2011 Rocky Ridge (not yet released, usually retailing at $55). The others were the 2009 Vino Noceto OGP Grandpère Vineyard (from the longest producing Zin vineyard in California, planted in 1868; available from the winery for $29); 2009 Bucklin Old Hill Ranch (retailing for an average of $31); 2010 Charter Oak Guido Ragghianti Old World Field Blend (selling through the winery for $58); and a barrel sample of the 2011 Black Sears Zin.

Other producers whose wines showed well at this tasting and who have a very good track record, producing high quality Zins for reasonable prices, are Bonneau, Carol Shelton, Chase, Fritz, Gustafson Family, Kenneth Volk, Limerick Lane, Mauritson/Rockpile Winery, Outpost, Ravenswood, Ridge, Seghesio Family, St. Francis, Storybook Mountain and Woodenhead.

For tasting notes on all 207 wines I sampled at this event, including many more high scoring wines, see the complete report on my blog here.