Zinfandel drinkers of the world, it’s time to unite. The wine world, it appears, is conspiring against us.
On the one hand, the establishment, which has always looked down on zinfandel as something inferior to cabernet sauvignon and merlot, continues to do so. One world-class wine maker, an otherwise fine fellow, compared it to South Africa’s pinotage -- which is the definition of an acquired taste.
On the other hand, the hipsters and social climbers who are always looking for the next groovy thing have discovered zinfandel.in a big way – as in big and alcoholic. They’re touting wines that have as much as 25 percent more alcohol than traditional zinfandels, which makes them almost as boozy as fortified wines like port, Night Train and Thunderbird.
It's entire possible to make lovely, food-friendly wines at 14 percent or less. See any of the Nalle zinfandels, for example. Not to fear, though. The Wine Curmudgeon can shine a light at the end of this tunnel.
It’s still possible, albeit with a little more work, to find zinfandels that offer the best of the varietal (the red stuff, of course, and not the sweetish pink called white zinfandel). Zinfandel is the classic American wine, our version of Australian shiraz, with quality producers at every price. It’s tremendously food friendly, pairing with everything from barbecues to smelly cheese and even white meat dishes like roast chicken and turkey. Even better, it tastes good (if a bit manly sometimes).
Zinfandel has a lot of mostly dark, jammy fruit like blueberries and boysenberries, some spiciness, and even a touch of brambliness, which is kind of like a blackberry before you sweeten it in a cobbler.
These three wines offer an overview of what’s available, but don’t be afraid to experiment:
• The Other Guys Dry Creek Valley Plungerhead 2005 ($12). Yes, the alcohol is a touch too high (14.9 percent) and it has a zork. But this is a more than adequate entry-level zinfandel with dark fruit and some spice. It’s even a little oaky, which isn’t something you see much at this price.
• Rosenblum North Coast Zinfandel 2005 ($18): Once, there were three great zinfandel houses in the U.S: Ravenswood, Rosenblum and Ridge. Ravenswood hasn't been what it was for years, and the fear is that Rosenblum will follow suit. It was bought by the world's largest liquor company this year (owner Kent Rosenblum got a reported $105 million), and quality almost always suffers in these situations. Hopefully, not, because Rosenblum makes classic wine.
• Ridge Lytton Springs 2005 ($35). Ridge not only makes the best zinfandel in the country, but some of the best red wine in the U.S. This is my favorite – a balanced, sophisticated wine that more than holds its own with anything at this price (or even 15 or 20 percent more). It has white pepper on the nose, with raspberry and strawberry flavors. It also has a couple of dollops of petite sirah, which make it richer and a little rounder.