Zinfandel



Dow’s Vale do Bomfim 2008, from Portugal’s Douro Valley, is a great little wine to drink with pizza and red-sauce pasta dishes, burgers, braised meats, barbecue ribs and such. Dow is, of course, one of the distinguished Port houses owned by the Symington family; this wine is made from the same kinds of grapes that go into vintage and reserve Ports, in this case 55 percent tinta barroca, 22 percent tinta roriz (the Spanish tempranillo), 3 percent each tourga nacional and touriga franca and 17 percent “mixed old vines,” which I assume means a field blend of several “old vine” varieties. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged nine months in American oak barrels. Winemakers are Charles Symington and Pedro Correia. The wine is as dark as night, exuberantly smoky and spicy, plummy and peppery, with whole baskets, it seems, of black plums, blueberries and mulberries woven with notes of lavender, violets, potpourri and graphite and just a hint of dried thyme and black olive. If that description makes the wine sound irresistible, it is, though along the parameters of basic, direct appeal. Still, Vale do Bomfim 2008 gradually delves into depths of spice and granite-like minerals, dusty tannins and meaty black and blue fruit flavors supported by vibrant acidity. 13.9 percent alcohol. Now through 2012. Very Good+. About $12, representing Great Value.

Imported by Premier Port Wines, Inc., San Francisco.

Well, first, it wasn’t really a contest. I volunteered to take some appropriate red wines to a birthday lunch for my former father-in-law, Ed Harrison, who just turned 94, and while he may not be as spry as he once was, he’s a gracious, good-humored person and all-around gentleman. The fare was pulled pork shoulder with beans and slaw and sauce, brought in from a local purveyor, and (second) just to remind My Readers who live outside this vicinity, the word “barbecue” in Memphis is a noun, not a verb, and it refers to pork shoulder or ribs slow-cooked over hickory coals with a basting sauce. (Don’t believe the outside propaganda that “Memphis-style” barbecue is “dry”; traditionally it has been “wet,” that is, cooked with a basting sauce and served at table with a different sauce.) We don’t say “let’s barbecue tonight” or “let’s have a barbecue” as people apparently do in the North and West regions of this great, vast country. “Barbecue” is the stuff itself in these parts. Got that? And, yes, in these parts the slaw goes in the sandwich.

I pulled six hearty red wines from the rack to take to lunch, and here’s what they were:

*Clayhouse “Show Pony” Red Cedar Vineyard Petite Sirah 2007, Paso Robles.
*Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2007, South Australia.
*Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2008, Russian River Valley.
*Villa Cecchi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2007, Tuscany.
*Mettler Epicenter Old Vines Zinfandel 2008, Lodi.
*Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, Mendoza.

These wines were samples for review. BBQ sandwich image from lifesambrosia.com; this is a great site for recipes for simple, authentic everyday food, with excellent art and thoughtful commentary.

Let’s eliminate three of these wines immediately. The Mettler Epicenter Old Vines Zinfandel 2008, at 15.8 percent alcohol, epitomized everything that is shamelessly sweet and over-ripe and cloying and awful about high alcohol zinfandel, and I found it undrinkable. About $20. The Cecchi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. made from 90 percent sangiovese grapes with 10 percent mammolo and canaiolo nero, was lean and very dry and austere and not nearly ready to consume; frankly something about the angularity of the wine just didn’t feel right with the rich, smoky, slightly spicy barbecue. Try it in a couple of years, however, with porcini risotto or roasted game birds. About $30. Finally, the Kilikanoon Killerman’s Run Shiraz Grenache 2007 seemed unbalanced between its own smoky, fleshy spicy character and dry, almost rigorous austerity. Not a success. About $19 to $24.

Nickel & Nickel’s Darien Vineyard Syrah is consistently one of the best syrah wines made in California; I rated the 2007 version Exceptional and made it one of My Best 50 Wines of 2010. I think I would rate the 08 rendition Excellent, rather than Exceptional, but boy this is a deep, dense, darkling plain of a wine, headily fragrant, intense and concentrated in its spicy and macerated blackberry, black currant and plums scents and flavors and developing over 20 to 40 minutes added levels of detail and dimension. The wine aged 16 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels. 1,108 cases. About $50. Actually, this wine was too complex, too multi-dimensioned for the barbecue, which required a wine a little less magnificent, a little more down-to-earth and immediately appealing. Those qualities we found in the Clayhouse “Show Pony” Petite Sirah 2007, Paso Robles, and the Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, Mendoza.

The fresh clean vibrant Clayhouse “Show Pony” Red Cedar Vineyard Petite Sirah 07 is all smoky plums, spicy blueberries and graphite-laced blackberries, ensconced in a smooth, supple structure supported by authoritative, slightly grainy but non-threatening tannins. This went down very nicely with the pork shoulder barbecue, beans and sauce. An expressive version of the petite sirah grape that doesn’t try to knock you down with high alcohol and baroque over-ripeness. This aged 20 months in a combination of French, Eastern European and American oak. Very limited production, unfortunately. Excellent. About $40.

I kept going back and pouring a little more of the Cruz Andina Malbec 2008, a blend of 85 percent malbec, 8 percent syrah and 7 percent cabernet sauvignon derived from Mendoza’s Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley areas. The wine was made in a partnership of Chile’s Veramonte winery and Carlos Pulenta, a third-generation vintner in Mendoza. Cruz Andina 08 aged 14 months in French oak barrels, 30 percent new. The whole package is smooth and mellow and tasty, with intense blueberry and red currant flavors supported by elements of smoke and cedar, black olive and potpourri and hints of pepper and spice. This was perfect with the barbecue and fun to drink. Very Good+. About $20.

Here are two very attractive selections from the roster of Windsor Sonoma. Winemaker is Marco DiGiulio. Samples for review.
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The Windsor Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Russian River Valley, is a solid middle-of-the-road style sauvignon blanc, and that’s a good thing. It doesn’t slap you in the face with excessive grapefruit/pea shoot qualities, though it possesses a modicum of each, nor is it so stony, minerally and austere that it sucks your breath out, though it offers, indeed, just the right amount of stoniness and limestone-like minerality. Aromas of tangerine, roasted lemon and a bit of melon cosy up to a bit of the grapefruit-pea shoot-lime peel element, all of which draw you in, quite prettily, to flavors of lime and nectarine bolstered by touches of dried thyme and tarragon, scintillating acidity — the wine was made in stainless steel — and a finish nicely balanced between spice and stones. Thoroughly enjoyable. 13.9 percent alcohol. Production was 750 cases. Drink through 2011 with delicate fish and seafood dishes or as an aperitif. Very Good+. About $15.
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We drank the Windsor Sonoma Zinfandel 2008, Dry Creek Valley, with pizza last night. The wine contains four percent petite sirah grapes and ages 15 months in French oak barrels, 25 percent of which were new. The color is a bright medium ruby red; the bouquet wafts scents of ripe black currants and raspberries and a bit of slightly roasted plums at your grateful olfactory nerves, gradually bringing in hints of orange Pekoe tea and fruit cake, with the range of dried fruit and spices implied by those elements, though there’s nothing raisiny here. Black and blue fruit flavors are deeply imbued with baking spice — cloves and allspice — and smooth, lightly oaked tannins that provide a firm but not aggressive structure; graphite-like minerality, along with touches of lavender and licorice, stir in the depths. A model of a non-blockbuster zinfandel, though the alcohol content may be 14.9 percent, according to the bottle, or 15.4 percent, according to the winery website. In any case, the wine is not hot or over-ripe. 807 cases were produced. Drink through 2012 with braised meat dishes, hearty pastas and pizzas or burgers and steaks. Excellent. About $22.
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The Shaw Vineyard was planted in 1882, so the Kunde Reserve Century Vines Shaw Vineyard Zinfandel 2005, Sonoma Valley, is made from vines that are actually 29 years more than a century old. The wine, at a bit more than five years old, is wonderfully smooth and mellow, as well as being surprisingly clean and fresh and more than a little exotic with notes of cloves and sandalwood, violets and potpourri seeping through the scents and flavors of spiced and macerated red and black currants and plums. It aged 17 months in a combination of French, American and Hungarian oak, with 20 percent of the barrels being new; the result is a structure of appealing suppleness and firmness layered with moderately dense and chewy tannins in the sleek, fine-grained mode. Lovely balance and integration all around and an irresistible drink for those who weary of over-blown, over-ripe, high-alcohol zinfandels. Production was 1,900 cases. Winemaker was Tim Bell. Excellent. About $30 to $35 and definitely Worth a Search.

Tasted at a trade event.

Wine Guerrilla produces about 5,000 cases of zinfandel-based wines from Sonoma County’s Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander valleys. The three examples I tried recently reveal a deft hand at the helm, so that while the wines are ripe and sometimes high in alcohol, they’re also nicely balanced and integrated. (All right, two out of three, as you will see.) In fact, the absence of over-ripe boysenberry tart elements and alcoholic heat/sweetness while yet being filled with flavor and spice made me wonder if these zinfandel wines resemble the 19th Century zinfandels for which California was once famous. Another gratifying aspect is that the colors of these wines are surprisingly moderate, if not light, in contrast to the deep, dark purple/black hues favored by producers of thunderous, blockbuster zins. These wines are unfiltered and unfined. The labels are colorful and intriguing. Samples for review.
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The Wine Guerrilla Adel’s Vineyard Zinfandel 2009, Dry Creek Valley, is an exemplar of balance and restraint while offering all that is good, beautiful and true about the zinfandel grape. It is, by the way, the winery’s first 100 percent zinfandel wine; all the others have been and are field blends. The color is radiant medium red cherry/ruby; aromas of smoke, cloves, new leather, black currants and black cherries are highlighted with notes of sage and black pepper. One feels on the palate a finely woven fabric of spicy nuance and supple texture that envelopes flavors of black and red fruit — with a touch of wild plum and mulberry — and hints of mocha and earthy briers and brambles, all framed with subtle, slightly chewy tannins. Those who favor zinfandels that run over their taste buds like a motorcycle gang on its way to a beer bash may not appreciate this style, but it’s my notion of what zinfandel ought to be. 170 cases. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $30.
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There’s no question that the Wine Guerrilla Conte Vineyard Zinfandel 2009, Russian River Valley, is more emphatic than the Adel’s Vineyard model. This is a warm and spicy blend of 83 percent zinfandel, 12 percent petite sirah, 2 percent each carignan and alicante bouschet and 1 percent grenache. The color is medium to dark red ruby with a black cherry hue at the center; a bouquet of ripe raspberries, mulberries, blackberries and plums is permeated with smoke, tobacco leaf, lavender and licorice and a distinctly roasted and fleshy quality. The wine is ripe and juicy but very dry and far more minerally, in the slate-shale range, and earthy-mossy than its cousin, though the texture is weightier, so dense and chewy that it’s almost viscous. Still, there’s nothing overpowering here, nothing heavy or obtrusive, and the wine slides through the mouth like liquid velvet. 238 cases. 15.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $30.
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I found the Wine Guerrilla Forchini Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2009, Dry Creek Valley, more problematic than its stablemates, solely because, to my palate, the alcohol level throws it a bit out of balance, particularly on the finish. Made from vines that are more than 100 years old, the wine contains about 95 percent zinfandel grapes with dollops of carignan, petite sirah and alicante bouschet. The immediate impression is of lavender and licorice, blueberries, blackberries and blue-bluer-bluest plums, circumscribed by walnut shell and wheatmeal and a broad element of fruit cake and brandied cherries and raisins. The whole enterprise is cast in the mold of powerful spice, black pepper and deeply macerated and roasted fruit flavors ensconced in a dense, thick, chewy structure. The finish is not hot, but it comes through as rather sweet and almost unctuous; yes, I’m sure devoted fans of the style will love it, but I feel a discordant note at the conclusion. 240 cases. 16.1 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $35.
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We’ve been tasting and drinking quite a few vigorous and rigorous cabernet sauvignon wines from California, even if they didn’t necessarily make a good match with what we were eating, so for Saturday night’s pizza — pepper-cured bacon, roasted tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms. goat cheese — I went in the direction of something more simple, more direct and more appropriate. That turned out to be The Climber Red Wine 2009, a blend of zinfandel (63%), cabernet sauvignon (21%), syrah (12%), petite sirah (2%) and merlot (2%), the sort of fruitful melange you’re likely to see nowhere but in California. The Climber label comes from the people that started the Clif Bar company in 1992. While the winery and farm are in Napa Valley, the grapes for the Climber 2009 came from Mendocino and Lodi; the wine carries a California designation. So, what’s here? A robust, ripe and vibrant red wine that’s packed with fleshy, meaty blackberry, black currant and plum flavors deeply permeated by spice, black pepper, briers and brambles and soft, cushiony tannins that float over the palate like a dusty cloud. This is a terrific pizza wine, though it would serve equally well with burgers, fajitas, pulled pork and other such hearty carnivore-targeted items. Winemakers are Sarah Gott and Bruce Regalia. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 3,500 cases. Closed with a screw-cap. Very Good+. About $12, a Great Bargain.

A sample for review.

Naturally we made — rather LL made — a deep rich broth from the turkey carcass and then used that for a splendid, hearty Turkey, Barley and Mushroom Soup from The Williams Sonoma Cookbook (Free Press, 2008, $35.95). I had to take a cleaver to those thick bones, but talk about rib-stickin’ earthy flavors!

We slurped up bowls of this concoction last night, perfect for the chilly weather, with glasses of the Artezin Zinfandel 2009, Mendocino County, a label from The Hess Collection. The wine sees no new oak and contains 8 percent petite sirah grapes and 1 percent carignan. Bright and appealing aromas of blueberry, black currant and black raspberry are woven with a touch of wildness, something like mulberry, red plum and dusty herbs with undertones of briers, brambles and black pepper. Unlike many zinfandels, the Artezin 2009 displays no annoying hotness, no cloying over-ripeness; instead, the wine is balanced, integrated and thoroughly drinkable, and I mean that assessment in the best sense. Black fruit flavors are permeated by baking spice and a bit of dusty shale-like minerality and nestled in a texture of moderately dense and finely-milled tannins. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass, and it brings up lovely notes of potpourri and thyme, sandalwood and smoke. Drink now through 2012. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Very Good+. About $18.


And being Thanksgiving, these are the wines I’ll be serving at the festive groaning board on Thursday. These are the same wines I have been offering, but at different vintages and prices, since our first Thanksgiving in this house in 2005. These are American wines, two from California, one from Oregon. I wish I could have some wines from Virginia, Michigan and New York too, but those are hard to come by in what’s called the Mid-South, this corner where West Tennessee, North Mississippi and Eastern Arkansas meet at the banks of Ol’ Man River. (You understand — Geography Alert! — that Tennessee and Mississippi are east of the river, and Arkansas is on the other side.) Anyway. I bought these wines a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of the annual feast.

Trefethen Dry Riesling 2008 & 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. Trefethen’s Dry Riesling is consistently one of the best rieslings produced in the Golden State. It’s quite a versatile wine, matching with a variety of foods, from the Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings to a dish we made recently, a Catalan cannellini bean and radicchio soup that was supposed to be vegan, but I cheated and unapologetically used bacon. Boy, it was great! When I said to LL that I was going to look for an appropriate wine, she said, “The Thanksgiving riesling,” and she was absolutely right. About $24. I bought one each of the 2008 and the 07, just to see how the latter is doing since I last tasted it. Here’s a link to the New York Times website with the recipe.

The Ridge Three Vineyards 2008, Sonoma County, is a blend of 74 percent zinfandel, 11 percent petite sirah, 5 percent carignan, 4 percent of mataro (more often called mourvedre or, in Spain, monastrell), and 3 percent each syrah and grenache. I like drinking zinfandel with Thanksgiving dinner, especially in a rendition that brings in a few other grapes like the 15 percent Rhone Valley varieties in this wine. Ridge’s Three Valley, while supple and spicy and flavorful is never over-ripe or over-alcoholic, making it a terrific pairing with the myriad and sometimes contradictory sensations that the Thanksgiving dinner affords. About $25. I bought two bottles of this wine.

Finally, I like to have a bottle of the Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, on hand. The vintage available in my town is the 2007. The pinot noirs from Domaine Serene to me comprise the perfect balance of power and elegance that’s the hallmark of great pinot. You may ask, “Does pinot noir belong on the Thanksgiving table?” To which I reply, “Hey, it’s my table.” About $47 in my neck of the woods, $42 on the winery’s website. I bought a single bottle of this one.

My plan is to drink one glass of each of these wines, in the order in which I mentioned them here. I like to see how each reacts with the turkey and gravy, the potatoes, the sweet potatoes and so forth.

Whatever wines you choose to serve at Thanksgiving don’t really matter because the meal, being what it is, draws almost any wine close to its heart. That’s why people who write about wine seem to provide such contradictory advice at this time of year; mainly we fall back on our favorites. So go for it, do your thing, be happy, and have a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving.

Though it clocks in at a heady 15.1 percent alcohol, the Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel 2008, carrying a Northern Sonoma designation, does not come across as a blockbuster. In fact, it not only feels fairly mild-mannered but impresses with its balance and subtlety. True to its nickname, the wine is rather “knotty” in the dusty, slightly woody briery and brambly sense. Some of the grapes here derive from 15 acres of vines planted in 1904 on the west side of the Russian River that Rodney Strong (1928-2006) acquired when he was first buying vineyards in the 1960s. The “Knotty Vines” Zinfandel 2008 includes 1 percent each of syrah and merlot — merlot? — and aged 17 months in American oak barrels (62%) and French oak (38%). The color is medium ruby with a magenta sheen. Aromas of spiced and macerated black and red currants, black pepper, leather and a hint of bitter chocolate waft from the glass; in the mouth, the wine offers black and red fruit flavors with a tincture of mulberry threaded with touches of cloves and tobacco, all ensconced in moderately dense, chewy tannins, acidity so pert that it practically glistens, and an oak influence that turns slightly austere on the finish, an appropriately grown-up rounding-off. What this wine is blessedly NOT is over-ripe, stridently spicy or sweet/hot with alcohol. The winemaker is veteran Rick Sayre. Drink now to 2012 or ’13. This would be very nice with the Thanksgiving feast. Excellent. About $20.

A sample for review.


The pizza was great, one of my best efforts, and the wine was great too.

Sometimes these matters are ineffable, unexplainable. Whatever the case, I made the pizza dough exactly right, with the correct balance of flours, yeast, water, salt and olive oil; kneaded the dough just as long as it, um, needed; the heat on the back porch was perfect for the first and second rising; I mean it all worked so that the crust, when it emerged from the 500-degree oven after 11 minutes, was thin yet with a slightly dense and chewy texture and a bit crisp at the moderately puffy circumference.

(BTW, I read somewhere that an oven heated at 500 degrees for an hour will reach a temperature of 550, the upper limit for a domestic range. That’s adequate, but I yearn for a wood-fired brick oven and the ideal 800 degrees that cooks a pizza in four minutes and chars the bottom of the crust. Sob. Weep.)

As you can see in the photograph, the pizza was topped with slices of tomatoes and bell pepper — very thin slices — with splotches of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses and Italian sausage. Underneath was a foundation of chopped fresh basil. Also: some diced white onion and two stalks of chopped green onion and, finally, gratings of Parmesan and pecorino cheeses. A dribble of olive oil across the surface as the last touch. Have mercy, everything worked together beautifully.

So did the wine. I opened a bottle of the V. Sattui Black Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, from Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain appellation. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, Black Sears in one of the highest vineyards in California. The wine ages 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new, 50 percent used or “seasoned.” The color is ruby-black, nigh unto opacity, and while that dark hue indicates quite a bit of extraction, the wine is compellingly clean and fresh. The bouquet teems with hints of blackberry, black currant and mulberry is a cloud of cloves, black pepper, lavender, licorice and slate-like minerality. The most important aspect of the wine, other than that it’s downright delicious, is its precise balance and its impeccable integration of elements married to the power of dusty, rock-ribbed mountain-grown tannins and scintillating acidity. It’s the sort of warm, spicy, lively wine that makes you want to keep sipping. Truly a fine example of the zinfandel grape, with no exaggeration, no flamboyance of over-ripeness or high alcohol; by high, nowadays, I mean 15 percent and over. Alcohol in here is 14.5 percent. Production was 400 cases; winemaker was Brooks Painter. Excellent. About $40, at the winery or mail order.

A sample for review.

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