Is Zinfandel A First-Class Varietal?

Post destruction. The wines we tastedby Andrew Chalk

I first encountered Zinfandel as a student when I tasted Ridge Vineyards ‘California Coast Range’ Zinfandel for what was, for an impoverished graduate student, a king’s ransom of $6.99. It is no longer made, but that wine engaged me to hunt out Zinfandel:  a fruity, forward, red wines that offered a (usually) lower-priced alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. I did not know at the time that Zinfandel was an almost universally scorned blending grape that was the backbone of such headache-inducing abominations as Gallo Hearty Burgundy. 

Because my first Zinfandel was made by one of California’s best wineries I had (through good advice as it happens) walked into Zinfandel wine making at its best. I immediately gave the grape ‘first class’ varietal status in my mind, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Pinot Noir. Fortunately, over the ensuing years, so have most serious wine drinkers. The motive power behind that acceptance has been the quality of the wine from a top tier of about twenty Zinfandel makers who keep making impressive wines year in and year out. A pivotal member of that top tier is Seghesio Family Vineyards in the Sonoma town of Healdsburg.

The wines ready to be tasted. Note the orange tone to the one on the bottom left. That was the one I was chosen to comment on

I jumped at the chance when I was invited to attend a tasting with Seghesio winemaker Ted Seghesio in Dallas which was intended as the vinicultural equivalent of confirmation in many religions. We didn’t rely on prayer for our ceremony however, we tasted the real wine. Led by emcee Tim Gaiser, MS, we tasted our way through six wines knowing only that they came from planet earth and that they were red. At least one of these was a Seghesio ‘Home Ranch’ Zinfandel, the winery’s flagship wine. It’s quality of viticulture and viniculture were to be tested, blind, to see if they were up to that of other global red wines.

Ted Seghesio 2After some thirty minutes of sniffing, swirling and tasting, the results were in. Gaiser went round the table successively launching each taster into the hot seat to discuss the next wine. The full list is below but, just for the record, I was sucker number four. That gave me the the only wine of the six that had a distinct orange hue to its color. In sommelier parlance it was ‘garnet’. The complex aroma burst with stone fruit, orange peel and roses. In the mouth, the most readily perceived characteristic was a high acid level (that in a flight of good-to-high acid wines). There was confirmation of the orange in the nose and, alone among the six wines, a coarseness to the texture (due to the tannins in the wine) but it was not so bold to be considered a flaw. In fact, it gave the wine a grip that was desirable. I remarked that this wine would be better with food than on its own. After my comments, the floor was thrown open and other tasters added their comments. One mentioned potpourri, another dried fruit in the taste, both things that I had missed. By the time we were ready to move to a discussion of the next wine the whole room felt that they had an ‘I was there’ type recognition of this wine. I also made a guess that this wine was Italian. It would turn out that it was 2007 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino, from the Italian Tuscany region.

The next wine turned out to be the 2011 Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel. If you can find a bottle from this wine’s scant production you will find a purple, medium intensity color. A cotton candy bouquet and a mouthfeel of cherries, grippy tannins, and spicy flavors. It also had “Graham cracker crust” flavors that Ted Seghesio explained were an intrinsic part of the Home Ranch terroir. It is enjoyable now but will keep for several years (on account of those tannins). I would drink it with a broad array of foods from traditional barbecue, hamburgers and steak, through to lamb, pasta dishes with red sauce and fatty poultry such as duck. Ted Seghesio went through the soils of the Alexander Valley vineyards  that contributes to the character of the wine; he described the atavistic head-pruned vine pruning technique (i.e. no trellises),  the blend of 87% Zinfandel and 13% Petite Sirah, the use of 25% new oak, and all French oak barrels. The most important impression of the wine is that it did not have make any excuses for being in the same rank as the other wines in the flight. Zinfandel had confirmed its first class varietal status. Looking at the price ($58) is also re-affirming. It is nice when the “best in the world” in a category costs about $60, but that is the level of Zinfandel in which Home Ranch flies.

FULL WINE FLIGHT DETAILS

  1. 2010 Turley Wine Cellars Cedarman Zinfandel, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, CA  $50
  2. 2011 Domaine Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 60 Vielles Vignes, France (from northern Rhðne Valley)  $65
  3.   2009 Henschke Keyneton Estate Euphonium Red Bland, Eden Valley, Barossa, Australia  $65
  4. 4 2007 Altesino Brunello di Montalcino, Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy  $65
  5. 5 2011 Seghesio Family Vineyards, Home Ranch Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, CA  $58
  6.  6 2007 Cheval des Andes, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina  $80

 

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