Zinfandel is the third most popular grape grown in California, a wine predictably offered by the glass in most restaurants and a dozen examples can be found in most grocery store aisles. But if you ask most somms to rank it among their preferred varieties, it probably would not rank in the top five. Most versions have overly ripe, jammy fruit that lands like a bomb in your mouth, without many tannins or much acidity to balance the high alcohol (I’m saying this as someone who is in the middle of the Italian Wine Scholar program). Looking at some current top wine lists in DC, California was barely represented, and definitely not a zin in sight.
Zinfandel flavors can vary depending on the quality of the grapes, where it is grown, and how it is manipulated in the wine making process. So, what if I were hosting some of DC’s hottest somms for a night of Zinfandel? Here are some beautiful examples that demonstrate the depth and complexity across California, with the most notable difference in the location.
2019 Matthiasson Lodi Zinfandel, Royal Tee Vineyard, $49. This wine was the lightest in color, ruby with hints of garnet, watery rim. The flavors were dusty tar with tangy cranberry and strawberry. Medium plus acid balanced with an earthy finish. Would be a fantastic wine a bit chilled.
Lodi, located in central California and known primarily for bulk wine production, has some of the oldest zin vines in California (cover image). This wine was grown from vines dating back to 1889, 130 years, some of the oldest vines in the entire country. Half of the grapes are whole clusters, aged in neutral barrels with native yeast.
2019 Camp Zinfandel, Hobo Wine Co, Mendocino, $22. This one had a deeper red color, with a bit of purple. Taste of burnt caramel, potpourri and violets. A bit more tannic with cloves and tobacco. A fantastic deal.
The Hobo Wine Company sources fruit from a variety of producers, dedicated to responsible farming methods, employing native yeasts. Mendocino, further north than the typical growing region of Zinfandel in Dry Creek Valley or Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, has cooler temperatures and mountain climate, which leads to more minerally Zin.
Brown Estate 2019 Mickey’s Block Zinfandel $55. The deepest and roundest of the Zinfandels we tasted, it was rich in fruit and flavor. Deep red berry flavor, red current with a bitter finish. Intense minerality is balanced with rich fruit flavor, tasting as if it hung out on the vine a bit. Delicious and velvety.
Located in Chiles Valley, east of Napa, this small block is located at 1100 feet of elevator, subject to large diurnal shifts in temperature, and spends 12 months in new French and American oak, which imparts a sweet spice flavor to the wine.
2010 Easton Zinfandel Amador County Rinaldi Vineyards, $29.
Another old vine planting dating back to 1864, this particular bottle was the only one I could find during the pandemic from the Sierra Foothills, 40 minutes east of San Francisco. The Sierra Foothill are known for their robust and spicy Zinfandels. They are old, dry farmed vines that produce low yields. Not quite comparable to the other zins, the two bottles I tried were both past their prime. I could taste a glimmer of the fruit, and the taste was a brambly menagerie of leather and cloves. I look forward to trying more from this region.
With just a little effort, I was able to find some fantastic Zins that would pair beautifully with a summer barbeque sauce, rich in smokey flavor and spice.