Zinfandel: is bigger better?

A close-up photo of dark ruby red Zinfandel in a wine glass
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Today’s high-octane Zins seem to garner critical acclaim in direct relationship to their alcohol levels. Is the style suited to the substance? Three of Wine Enthusiast’s editors sound off.


There was a period in California winemaking about 25 years ago when a bizarre “bigger is better” philosophy dominated the thinking of some North Coast vintners. In that long-ago age of innocence, they felt that the public was demanding late-harvested, super ripe wines high in alcohol, sweet fruit, outsized tannins, and wood. Supposedly, these were wines that would, in the jargon of the day, “live forever.” The results were monstrosities—like Chardonnays with 16.5 percent alcohol and enough oak to fell entire forests. And, no, they didn’t live forever. Few of them even survived the 1970s.

Thankfully that era passed, but vestiges remain in the issue being debated: What does it mean to suggest that when it comes to Zinfandel, bigger is better? Presumably, it means that “big” wines, with high alcohol and the possibility of some residual sugar, are better than their opposites: “smaller” wines, with lower alcohol and fermented dry. That the question even makes sense is due to the nature of Zinfandel’s split personality.

Zinfandel can be made in a wider range of styles than just about any other wine. There are fresh, acidic Zinfandels that are as jammy as Beaujolais; so-called “claret-style” Zins that are drier and more tannic; dry, young rosé Zins; sweet, fortified Zinfandel Ports; and late-harvest styles that, to add to the confusion, can be either sweet or dry, although they are invariably heady. And then there’s white Zinfandel, which is usually semisweet and low in alcohol. I’ve even tried a sparkling Zinfandel once, although I hope never to see one again.

I’m a claret-style Zin man all the way. I suppose it all has to do with one’s concept of what a red wine “should” be. Some French wag once famously said that the first duty of a wine is to be red, by which he meant, I think, a dry wine, moderate in alcohol; the sort of wine that Burgundy and Bordeaux are. Granted, by its very nature, Zinfandel will always have higher alcohol than either Bordeaux or Burgundy (which may also mean it’s sweeter), because the grapes need higher sugars to develop fruity flavors. But the “bigger is better” folks enjoy their Zins above 15 or 16 percent alcohol, and sometimes even above an astronomical 17 percent. This, to me, is not what a table wine should be.

For one thing, I don’t care for all that alcohol. After a couple of glasses, you’re really feeling it—not a good thing for a conscientious driver given today’s D.U.I. laws. After all, a 16.5 percent alcohol Zin has nearly 20 percent more alcohol than one with 14 percent. Besides, a wine that powerful can swamp food, even the salty, rich foods Zinfandel usually accompanies. I especially don’t like the raisiny smells and flavors that frequently accompany these late-harvested Zins. A lot of them are also sweet, which to me is the ultimate turnoff. Sugar is fine in Port but very bad in a dry red table wine. And Zinfandel is—or should be—a dry table wine.

The claret-style approach to Zinfandel has long been championed by the vintner whose name is most closely associated in California with it, Ridge Vineyards’ winemaker and CEO, Paul Draper (who once dismissed late-harvest Zinfandel as fit only for “a Slovanian [sic] picnic”). “What we did [at Ridge] from the start,” Draper told me, “was to handle our Zinfandel exactly as we did the Montebello Cabernet,” in other words, to produce a dry, claret-style Zin of elegance and proportion. How did he do this? Draper’s first rule for fine Zinfandel: “The grapes must be fully ripe when you pick.”

In other words, not underripe. But not overripe, either. A class act like Ridge avoids getting sloppy or lazy when harvesting Zinfandel. The grape has a notorious tendency to overripen under California’s hot sun. The berries can dehydrate and even turn to raisins. If a bunch of grapes contains only a few raisined ones, the wine might well have an interesting streak of cassis and blackcurrant. But, as Draper warns, “If the wine is dominated by raisins, you’ve made a mistake in winemaking.”

Now, in all fairness, there’s a distinction to be made between Porty, raisiny wines and high-alcohol wines. There are some high-alcohol Zins that wear their size well. Such wines can be wonderful. One that I recently had is the Hanna 1999 Bismark Ranch Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley ($49), which I rated at 92 despite its hefty 16.5 percent alcohol. It was so balanced, you hardly even detected the alcohol. Draper himself remembers his own Ridge 1977 Geyserville Zinfandel, which reached 16.2 percent alcohol “yet was a beautifully balanced table wine,” although he confesses he is “mystified” why some high-alcohol Zins are balanced while others are not.

Personally, I’ll stick to claret-style Zins. Alexis Lichine, the late, great French vintner and author, once said: “A well-balanced wine may not be great, but a great wine is always well-balanced.” There are some really great Zins out there, and invariably, they’re well-balanced.


If bigger is indeed better, then Zinfandel is a giant among red wines. When made from clean, ripe fruit, it serves up mountains of complex flavors that are couched in firm, ripe tannins, silky smooth texture and a bit of spicy brightness for added length on the finish. However, its towering personality stems from the fact that it is practically unique to California, where the climate is particularly well-suited to the late-ripening grape. While Zinfandel may have had its origins in Eastern Europe, it has clearly thrived in California. (The related Primitivo vines now found in Italy are probably descended from Zinfandel that was transported back to that country from California some 100 years ago.)

High-alcohol wines may still be balanced. It’s the integration of the ensemble that counts—that is, flavor, tannin, acidity, oak and alcohol. Taking pot shots at a wine because it’s too oaky or alcoholic is positively silly, especially in California, where most wines are, by definition, high in alcohol. They can stand up to a healthy dose of oak.

The question of bigger versus better is basically irrelevant. The best ones are all big—or big enough. That’s gospel. Some, like Turley, are bigger. Others like Hendry and S.E. Chase are less “big”—and perhaps a bit more food-friendly. That doesn’t make them better, however. It’s simply a question of style.

Larry Turley and his winemaker, Ehren Jordan, look for maximum extraction from ultraripe fruit, which can give Turley Zins an almost Port-like quality. The wines are not nearly as sweet as Port, but they’ve got so much muscle that they readily stand up to dessert and cigars. I love them. But I’d probably choose Hendry or S.E. Chase for my main course. Turley is reserved for the cheese platter or later.

Napa wineries Hendry and S.E. Chase are among my favorite producers. The wines are big, full-blown affairs, typically rich in spicy plum, black currant, licorice and clove flavors, all couched in classy French oak. But they exhibit enough restraint to keep the wines from overshadowing the main attraction—that is, dinner.

It will be interesting to taste the stylistic differences in the 2001 vintage between Turley’s Hayne Vineyard bottling and S.E. Chase’s wine, which also comes from the same vineyard. Turley picked its designated portion of the vineyard several weeks earlier than S.E. Chase did last year. Is wine really made in the vineyard, as the platitude goes? I think not. It’s the cellar technique that really creates style. My bet is that Turley, despite lower sugar levels, will nonetheless make a bigger wine than S.E. Chase in 2001. That’s the company preference.

Meanwhile, those Zinfandel lovers who prefer a somewhat lighter version might want to investigate Sonoma County. Here, the closer proximity to cooling Pacific breezes tempers sugar levels a bit, as compared to Napa Valley. Local wineries like Gallo, Rafanelli and Seghesio all make deliciously refined Zinfandel.

What I love most about Zinfandel—in addition to its force of character and diversity of style—is its easy drinking elegance. Fine Zinfandel generally comes out of the starting blocks in a supple, palate-friendly form. You don’t have to wait five years for it to soften up or round off. Yet it ages beautifully, too.

Not long ago, I did a vertical tasting of Rafanelli Zins going back to the mid-1980s. Rafanelli’s 1986 vintage was still richly attractive, smelling of coffee, cola and earth. The 1988 version was also outstanding, displaying power and elegance, with plush plum flavors and a long, lush finish. An astute businessman as well as a fine winemaker, Dave Rafanelli says his Zinfandels should be drunk within six years to best retain their purest fruit essence. But those who disregard his advice might be rewarded with an equally compelling, yet different tasting experience, based on evolved, aged flavors rather than youthful, fruity ones.

Can Zinfandel successfully pass the two-decade mark? Given my own experience, it’s clear that some can. Last year I discovered a bottle of 1978 Fetzer Zinfandel, from Mendocino County, in my cellar. The bottle surely saw periods of questionable storage conditions over the years. Yet the wine remained sleek, alive and elegant. We marveled at its longevity.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Zinfandel remains, in my book, a giant among red winegrape varieties. When handled by top-notch winemakers, it’s one wine that rarely lets me down.


Let’s tell the truth here. In America, bigger is almost always perceived as better. The guys who can hit the ball harder and farther than anyone else get the nine-figure contracts. The SUVs with the most road-hogging width and length are deemed the safest and most desirable. The tallest buildings are the ones that symbolize our strength and power. The guys with the biggest _______ (you fill in the blank) get the prettiest girls.

Why should it be any different with wine? When evaluating a group of wines, those with the ripest fruit, the brawniest tannins and the most oak stand out in the crowd. Size matters a great deal when the taster doesn’t know how to distinguish more subtle components, or is tasting through a large group of wines rapidly and soon develops palate fatigue.

Zinfandel, being the most American of all wines, is naturally more prone to this than Pinot Noir or Cabernet or Merlot or even Syrah, which all have French paradigms that frequently emphasize terroir over sheer power. From turn-of-the-(last)-century times, Zinfandel was popular because it ripened quickly and easily, and because it made big, vociferous, inky, tannic wines that resonated with the style of the southern Italian reds that were familiar to the newly arrived immigrants who planted it.

During the Zin renaissance of the 1970s, it was the hot, ripe, hugely extracted monster Zins of Amador County that gripped the imagination, that promised to last forever thanks to their massive structures and over-the-top tannins. During that first wave of post-Prohibition popularity, Zinfandel seemed to express a quintessentially American style of winemaking. It was the wine equivalent of a Labrador retriever, bounding up to you and slurping you with joyous abandon.

Unfortunately, a couple of things were missing from these blockbuster wines. First, it turned out these monster Zins fell apart rather than knitting together. They imploded rather than developed, quickly devolving into raisiny, Port-like heat bombs. Second, they failed with food, and when the food and wine craze took hold in the early 1980s, these awkward, gargantuan Zins were left in the dust, replaced by more elegant, food-worthy Cabernets and Merlots.

The blockbuster Zins came back in the mid-1990s, fueled by a new interest in old-vine Zinfandel in general and in hugely extracted, “hedonistic” red wines in particular. But despite their newfound cachet, these new versions of the old Zin monsters simply serve to demonstrate the biggest failing of all with such wines: The failure of oversized, overblown, over-extracted and overoaked Zinfandel to express any legitimate varietal character.

When it comes to enhancing anything that might realistically be called the true and unique expression of the grape, size matters most of all, though not in the sense of bigger is better. Balanced is better. You simply cannot take any winegrape, blow it up to monster size, and expect it to “express” varietal character. It’s like over-inflating a balloon, past the point where the shape or the writing on the side can be identified. Up to a certain point, ripeness is good; push too far past it, and that extra ripeness robs the wine of nuance: the nuances of terroir, of proper balance and of vine age and clone.

This mania for extract reaches its apogee in so-called “great” vintages such as 1997, which produced such hot, overripe Zinfandel in most regions of California that the wines are already falling apart. I’ve tasted a dozen or more ’97s in recent weeks, and they are hot, raisiny, prunish brutes lumbering towards oblivion. The much-maligned ’96s are, by comparison, extraordinary, vivid, sculpted wines just hitting their adolescence, while the even-more-hated ’98s are far better and more likely to age well.

There is no argument that hot, early vintages such as 1997 make it really easy for winemakers to produce high-alcohol, over-extracted, out-of-balance wines that, when first released, have the kind of ultraripe, juicy fruit and toasty wood tandems that often garner huge reviews. But drink them up within a year or two, because after that they age about as well as defensive tackles.

The real damage that such Zinfandels wreak is to destroy any opportunity to express and appreciate terroir. Perhaps because it is one of the longest-lived grapes, with numerous examples of century-old vines still in production, Zinfandel has an amazing ability to showcase the subtle qualities of place. This becomes evident when tasting well-balanced, artfully crafted examples from widely separated and climatically distinctive wine-growing regions. The grape is planted throughout California, and one of its most beguiling qualities is that you can find excellent Zins from almost anywhere north, south, east or west: from Mendocino to Paso Robles; from Amador to Dry Creek Valley.

The key to ferreting out the uniqueness of each region is finding the right site, working with old (20-plus-year-old) vines, keeping crop levels down, finding ways to ripen it evenly, not letting the brix run away, and balancing the fruit with firm acids and restrained oak. When all is well, you find that each region imparts its own style to the wines.

In Mendocino, Zins typically have a lively peppery streak, and occasionally other, still more exotic spices as well. The fruit is often plummy rather than tart, and a pleasing softness makes the wines accessible. Dry Creek Valley Zins show crisp, berry flavors, elegantly wrapped in a dusting of cocoa. They are often the most claret-like in style. In other parts of Sonoma County, Zinfandel is a little broader and richer than Dry Creek, but shows the same lovely balance of bright fruit, crisp acids, and spicy oak. Napa Zins deliver jammy black-cherry flavors, which are buttressed with thick, mouth-filling tannins. Amador and Sierra Foothills Zins are often the brawniest of all, but careful winemakers can keep them from turning hot and pruny. Paso Robles vines can display pleasing notes of tar and leather, reminiscent of Chianti. Contra Costa and Lodi are home to some wonderful old-vine growers, and here the softer, almost delicate flavors of age abound.

Once you have tasted balanced, elegantly crafted Zinfandels, you will find it difficult to go back to the tongue-lashing flavors of their brothers on steroids. Remember, balanced is better. Bigger is just—bigger.

92 Nalle 1999 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley); $21. Nalle makes a welcome return to form with their ’99, which recalls the precision, vivacious berries, and lip-smacking acids of their sensation mid-90s wines. Always released a bit too young, it’s just now smoothing out and opening up, a balanced, forward, and age-worthy wine in a classic, claret-like mode.

Published on March 1, 2002