Zinfandel: America’s red wine

Wayne on Wine
By Wayne Crawford

wayne crawford
Wayne Crawford

Old World immigrants brought not only their farming traditions to America but also their grapes – cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir from France, sangiovese from Italy and riesling from Alsace and Germany.

Today, the European growing regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Rhine and Rioja continue to flourish and set a standard for their grapes.

But somewhere in the grand migration to America, zinfandel grapes slipped into the country. Although they have limited Old World heritage, these grapes now account for 10 percent of California red grapes and 50,000 acres of vines in the United States.

While it is likely the grape arrived from Austria, its birthplace is Dalmatia as Crljenak Kaštelanski, Croatia. Yet the success of this wonderful red grape is almost totally American and is nurtured by the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP), zinfandel.org, a great source for information.

Frei Brothers winery
Frei Brothers winery. Photo courtesy of Frei Brothers winery, Northern Sonoma

ZAP’s invaluable Aroma Wheel sharpens tasting skills for this red wine. And one of the best resource guides on a grape is provided by ZAP. While 26 pages in length, it provides a great jumping-off point for enjoying this wine and offers information on food pairings, growing regions in California and the role of ZAP in promoting this grape.

The most common aromas and flavors associated with zinfandel grapes are blackberry, raspberry, boysenberry and cherry with strong black pepper, cloves and herbs lacing the flavor. In the Big Canoe Wine Group blind-tasting for this article, a wide variance in flavors surfaced. These differences are based not only on the growing region — warm or cool — but also on the craftsmanship of the winemaker, site selection, growing altitude, soil, type of fermentation and a host of individual choices made in the wine process.

Zinvandel grapes

Old-vine zinfandel — a significant amount is grown in California — adds gorgeous layers of flavors. This wine is rich in American standards and, regardless of its birthplace, guided by U.S. growers.

Pairing food with America’s “real red wine” reinforces its high acclaim as a prominent domestic wine … albeit from a Dalmatian immigrant family. The list is almost endless and includes almost everything barbecue: chicken, pork, most spicy meats and Asian dishes. Grilled and roasted meats, steaks, hamburger and lamb also make great pairings.

For the holidays, delight your guests by serving zinfandel with pizza, spicy sausage, duck and pulled pork. About the only foods to avoid are shellfish and seafood. When the strong blue or stilton cheese is brought out to end an evening, a great zinfandel will not disappoint.

As a wine writer, I have increasingly set aside wine scores when selecting wines. I do, however, use scoring and comments from selected wine reviewers as a guide to seek out wines I might easily overlook and encourage readers to discover the joys of wine through their own research.

An important key to enjoying wine is determining what you like to drink, then researching which wineries consistently deliver the best wine for the value each year. With zinfandel, the list should include: Ravenswood, Rosenblum, Norman, Hartford Family, Ridge, Four Vines and others you may enjoy discovering on your own.

‘Wines Drinking Well Now’

Wayne on Wine

Hartford Family Winery 2007 Old Vines Zinfandel, Russian River, Sonoma, $35: This one blind-tasted with a smooth texture defined by pleasing berry and allspice aromas. Black raspberry flavors on the palate with hints of cinnamon, this is a balanced wine with an excellent finish.

Frei Brothers Reserve 2009 Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, Northern Sonoma, $17.95: Spicy, hints of vanilla, plums, dried herbs and low soft tannins.

Norman, 2007 The Monster Zinfandel, Paso Robles, $28: A traditional Paso Robles favorite, this year's Monster Zin is, perhaps, the finest ever bottled. Intense aromas of raspberry jam and blackberry are balanced with spicy notes of pepper and fennel. Full-bodied, the robust berry and plum flavors led to a lengthy finish of caramel and molasses. The moderate residual sugar makes this the ideal wine for rich chocolate desserts or fireside sipping: 96 percent zinfandel and four percent petite syrah.

Other zinfandel wines drinking well include: Turley 2010 Paso Robles Presenti Vineyard, $35; Turley 2010 Howell Mountain Cedarman, $29; Ridge 2010 Russian River Valley Ponzo, $28; Seghesio 2009 Cortina Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, $38; Bella Wines 2009 Lilly Hill Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma, $38; Hartford Family Winery 2010 Highwire Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, $55 — one of the two big winners at the ZAP 2012 annual tasting.

Drink what you like!

As the year ends, I thank all who read this column and the Big Canoe Wine Group for sharing their knowledge of great wines with the Big Canoe community.

Next month’s article will highlight Spanish wines. In between, check Smoke Signals Online for an article on sparkling wines for the New Year.

Crawford is a certified specialist of Wine CSW and a member of the Society of Wine Educators and the American Wine Society.


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