Sense of Restraint About Zinfandels

Dec 26, 2012 | In The News

Eric Asimov

THE wine panel generally explores a particular region, genre or vintage in all its manifestations. We might examine the 2007 Barolos, for example, or survey recent Mosel kabinett rieslings or Mendocino pinot noirs. Our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, always shops retail and puts together a representative sampling.

But this tasting was different. The subject was zinfandel, and our goal was not merely to focus on a year or an appellation. Instead, we set out to see whether we could isolate a particular style that we had in mind. First, let me offer some background.

For years I’ve had a problem with zinfandel. I want to like the wines. In fact, back in the 1980s and early ’90s, I did, very much. But since then I’ve pretty much stopped drinking them. Many people’s tastes change over time, and no doubt mine has, too. But I think the wines changed more than my taste.

To put it simply, zinfandel got big, often huge, and occasionally monstrous. Fans of thunderously powerful wines rejoice in these bottles, but not me. I find the blast of rich, sometimes pruney fruit to be overbearing, and the hammer blow of alcohol to be unpleasant. Zinfandels now commonly reach past 15 percent alcohol. They often convey an impression of sweetness that, combined with a thick texture, tends to blot out food. Sometimes they actually are sweet.

Of all the big zinfandel producers, I don’t think any is better than Turley Wine Cellars. For years, Turley epitomized this genre of wines, and yet the wines have gotten better and better. The winemaking and vineyard teams, led by Ehren Jordan and Tegan Passalacqua, have so successfully zeroed in on this style that even their densest, most concentrated zinfandels, like the Hayne Vineyard in Napa Valley, regularly in the vicinity of 16 percent, are uncannily precise, focused and never seem sweet or viscous. Even so, a swallow still seems to leave behind a plume of alcoholic vapor that toasts the insides. I can’t really envision a time when I’d seek out such a wine, unless I was stranded in an avalanche and the wine was ferried by St. Bernard.

It’s not that I’m monolithically opposed to higher-alcohol wines, though I do prefer lower levels. I love fino sherries, for example, which are generally around 15 percent. But fino is itself a contradiction, a wine that is both high in alcohol and fragile in texture. How can this be? The flor, a yeast that accumulates and protects the sherry as it ages in barrels, also seems to consume glycerol and sugar. In effect, it leaves fino bone dry and delicate.

Why don’t I just avoid zinfandel altogether? Well, it is a uniquely American wine, even if the grape had its origins as tribidrag in Croatia and is also known as primitivo in Puglia. I want to like it. So I have continued to struggle with it.

In the last few years, though, I’ve noticed some zinfandel producers gravitating to a more restrained style, lighter in body and lower in alcohol. Historically, this has often been called the “claret style” of zinfandel, though these days the term, derived from British usage, seems archaic. What if the wine panel could gather together a bunch of these more restrained wines and identify our favorites?

This, then, was the unusual task for Bernie. We sent him out not just to bring back any zinfandels, but to research and procure only those that might fall under this more restrained category. Relying on his best sources, he gathered 20 bottles, all under 15 percent alcohol.

Admittedly, that was an arbitrary figure. Some argue that alcohol is an irrelevant number, and that what’s important at any level is balance. But for the most part I don’t agree. The big Turleys are beautifully balanced, but power and impact remain their dominant features, and we were looking for restraint. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Chad Walsh, the beverage manager at the Dutch, and Dustin Wilson, the wine director at Eleven Madison Park.

The good news is that our favorites showed just the sort of freshness, energy and balance that we were hoping to find. Unfortunately, not many succeed in doing this. “A lot were still, oddly enough, syrupy and jammy,” Dustin said.

<>Look, we know that zinfandel is not Beaujolais. It naturally tends to brawny, and that’s fine. But it’s certainly possible to make a zinfandel in which each sip leaves you thirsting for more. Consider our top wines.

Our No. 1 wine was no surprise. For decades, Ridge has been making great zinfandels from its old-vine vineyards in Sonoma County, and the 2010 from Lytton Springs in Dry Creek Valley was yet another. It was hefty enough at 14.4 percent but beautifully structured, nuanced and refreshing. The wine is a field blend including 67 percent zinfandel, which, since it doesn’t meet the 75 percent threshold required by California law, means it can’t technically be called a zinfandel. Whatever. By the way, the Ridge Web site laudably offers full disclosure: tartaric acid was added in the winemaking, and a small number of lots were “rehydrated,” that is, water was added, presumably to lower the alcohol. Not uncommon in California.

It was interesting to compare the Lytton Springs to our No. 7 bottle, its Ridge sibling from the Geyserville vineyard. By contrast, Ridge added calcium carbonate to this wine to diminish the acidity. In many ways, the Geyserville showed similar characteristics to the Lytton Springs, but the disparate parts were not nearly as well integrated. It needs more time to evolve.

Our other favorite bottle was the superb 2010 Nalle from Dry Creek Valley, fresh and lively yet with intense, focused spicy flavors and a nimble 13.6 alcohol. Lovely!

Dashe is another zinfandel producer that I tend to like, and its 2009 Todd Brothers Ranch from the Alexander Valley was our No. 3 bottle. We all very much liked its freshness and well-integrated flavors of dark fruit and herbs. Dashe produces another zinfandel, Les Enfants Terribles, in almost a Beaujolais-like fashion. I’ve liked this wine before, but the 2011 seemed a little sweet to us and did not make the cut.

Other bottles that we found highly appealing included the 2010 Seghesio Home Ranch, even though it showed its 14.8 percent alcohol, and the dense yet nuanced 2008 Sky from Mount Veeder in Napa Valley.

You could say we were mildly disappointed by our tasting. Certainly, lower alcohol levels by themselves are no guarantee that a wine will be lively and energetic. Yet we hope that more zinfandel producers will embrace the notion that wines can be both agile and intense rather than aiming simply for blockbuster power. Meanwhile, I will continue with my own zinfandel struggle.

A version of this article appears in print o Dec. 26, 2012, Section D, Page 6 of the New York edition with the headline: Sense of Restraint About Zinfandels.