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Zinfandel & relatives

Edmeades's zins from the 70s, Green & Red's from the early 80s, and Nalle's from the late 80s are a few of examples of zins I used to love.

Nalle's were pushing toward the superripe, jammy style that's the only kind I've encountered in recent years, but they were "only" around 14-14.5% alcohol.

Does anybody make balanced wine out of zinfandel grapes any more?

Primitivos I've always found flabby and hot.

Some of the cheaper plavac mali (Croatian zinfandel relative) wines I've tried have been interesting, but the more expensive ones tend toward the same excesses as in California.

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  1. Turley's! Marinelli's JackAss! Both still great though pricey.

    Edmeades and Green and Red were great wines. I haven't had them in years myself.

    1. What's your take on Carlisle?

      1. Turley is the epitome of the modern style I don't appreciate. It's the reducto ad absurdum of what Nalle was doing in the late 80s.

        1. Storybook Mountain Mayacamas Range. Very balanced, not over the top traditional style Zin. Other than that, I haven't had any Zins in the last year that I have found interesting or inspiring. Most have been too alchoholic, too extracted, had excessive volitile acidity, and/or Brett contamination.

          1. I picked up a couple of bottles of the Green and Red 03 Tip Top Vineyard (1,700 ft), one for a gift. Notice it's only 14.9% abv, any idea if it might be more the old style than their Chiles Valley? Also found a bottle of the 03 Calcareous (Paso Robles) that I enjoyed at a recent tasting, it weighs in at 15.9 abv so might not be what you're after.

            A local merchant rec'd a bottle recently that I enjoyed but I'm blanking on the name, Mauritson comes to mind, but not sure. I'll see if I can spot it next time in the store and post back.

            1. It's a sign of how out of whack things are that anyone could say "only 14.9%." That used to be shockingly high, even for zins.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Hey, big alcohol, extracted wines are what the majority of drinkers are buying. To say producers are out of whack is a misnomer, they are producing what sells, I do not blame them for that.

                1. re: newJJD

                  That consumers prefer unbalanced wines doesn't make them good.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Please show me where in my post that I implied that high sales = quality wine. Yellow Tail sells 5+ million cases of "alcoholic grape beverage", and I personally find this stuff undrinkable.

                    Also nice to see that any wines over 13.5% abv, or a high Parker score seem to merit a "unbalanced, undrinkable" tag from you Robert. What makes you think that a wine that is "balanced" on your palate is perceived the same way by all other wine drinkers.

                    So the wine doesn't go with Food, so what. It's not called the Wine & Food Specatator/Advocate.

                  2. re: newJJD

                    That's actually a small segment of the wine drinking public.

                2. I cut my teeth on Ridge Geyserville 92' and 93'. This (as I recall) was a blend of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah though. The Petite Syrah gives it an interesting edge and complexity.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Chinon00

                    Carignane too, which adds the red curranty signature that defines Geyserville for me.

                  2. I hope the poster who suggested Martinelli and Turley was joking, given the nature of your original post.

                    Actually, Nalle's Zins since the mid to late 90s have been models of balance and a restrained approach to Zin. Have you had one lately?

                    Some of Rosenblum's offerings are less than overblown, but still lush. The Paso Robles Richard Sauret Vineyard offerings come to mind and I have heard great things about their EaglePoint Ranch Vineyard as well, from Mendocino.

                    Two others that are, in most vintages, reliably good but not overextracted or overripe or overoaked are the Seghesio Sonoma bottling and the BV Napa Zinfandel bottling.

                    Carlisle is excellent, but maybe too big for your taste.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: DonnyMac

                      I haven't had a Nalle in a while. I guess 13.9% is pretty restrained by contemporary standards.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Many years ago Doug Nalle said that he would not make a zin over 14% ABV. So far he's been true to his word and 13.9% is the highest.

                    2. I don't know, Robert. Years ago when I was first getting into wine, zins from Ridge and some of the Napa wineries seemed like the ultimate. In retrospect, they were too young, tight, heavy on oak and tannins, and good mainly for laying down and crossing your fingers for 10 years. It was a sort of "big is better" philosophy.

                      Granted, price is a particularly key issue with big wine, but I didn't have (and still don't) $80 or $100 to gamble on a single bottle in the hopes it has reached maturity without getting corked.

                      I'm still frustrated by any number of wineries and wine shops whose proprietors seem to subscribe to the "big is better" philosophy. I'll take a Loire red or a Santa Barbara County pinot any day.

                      1. Santa Barbara County pinot often is extracted. That's pretty big.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: SteveTimko

                          yeah, you're right. I tend to like the less extracted ones. but even the bigger style doesn't have the tannins of those zins and cabs from yesteryear..

                        2. I used to like those wines too. Edmeades was great before they became the now common fruit bomb. I recently had a bottle of Seghesio Zin, that I really liked, but it was a vineyard designate that I can't remember. I thought it was kind of funny, because that was the first Zin I ever had and then they went downhill and I thought of them as pretty boring. But this last bottle was what I look for in a Zin, fruit,spice and medium body. I don't think it was too high alcohol wise either, because it didn't leave the heat behind.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Missmoo

                            Edmeades basically went out of business in 1988 when the family sold the winery to Kendall-Jackson.

                          2. The best Zinfadel I've had recently was a 1998 Navarro. Actually, it was one of the best wines of any type I've had recently. Simply gorgeous.

                            My theory on Zinfandel is that given how it is grown today, it's a cool weather grape. Here's my thinking... Decades ago when CA wineries were playing with the grape, they had a difficult time managing Zinfandel's notoriously unevening ripening. Perhaps more than any other grape variety, Zinfandel can produce clusters that contain grapes of widely different ripeness. It was not uncommon to get a cluster with both green grapes and raisins. This also caused a problem with rotting when the ripest grapes would burst and rot while the winemaker was still waiting for the least-ripe grapes to mature enough to pick. So when choosing where to plant Zinfandel, one of the primary needs was a climate that would minimize the underripe grapes so they wouldn't add unpleasant flavors to the wine. So Zinfandel was planted in warm areas like Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Napa Valley. With cooperative weather and skilled winemaking, Zinfandel would produce complex wines from the variety of flavors available in the clusters (i.e., higher-acid red-fruit flavors from the less-ripe grapes and sweeter black-fruit flavors from the riper ones).

                            But fast-forward to today, and the picture is different. For various reasons (which are a matter of huge debate that I'll avoid here), dozens of vineyard management techniques have been developed that allow a vintner to consistently achieve higher ripeness in their grapes. This has allowed Zinfandel growers to pretty much eliminate not only the underripe grapes, but also those less-ripe, red-fruited grapes that winedrinkers like myself enjoy so much, but are allegedly unpopular in the U.S. marketplace. The end result are wines that are sweet, jammy, soft, low-acid, and high in alcohol.

                            When I think of that description of Zinfandel, that's what makes me think it's a cool-weather grape. When a known cool-weather grape (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, etc.) is planted in a warm area, the result is always overripe, dense, low-acid, high alcohol wines. I believe that given the way in which Zinfandel is grown today (that is, using all of the new vineyard management techniques) it's a cool-weather grape. So if the jammy Zin is not your style, avoid the famous Zin growing areas like Dry Creek, Alexander Valley, etc. and look for the rare ones made in cool climates.

                            Navarro's Zin is such an example. While some parts of Mendocino are very hot (the inland area around Ukiah, namely), Navarro claims to use fruit from cooler sites. Another Zin that impressed me was the one made by Zefina in Washington, which I tried back in January at ZAP. While it does have alcohol in the 15% area (catering to expectations, perhaps?), the flavor profile is most definitely less-ripe than the common jammy Zin out there. It's got really pretty red cherry, raspberry, and strawberry fruit and without the jam and raisin flavors.

                            All that said, I must admit that I really like the Zins made by Bella as well, in particular their Hillside and Belle Canyon Zins. They're definitely in the ripe jammy style, but with an elegance and balance to make it work.


                            1. I hate to say it but Gallo's Rancho Zabacho Sonoma County is excellent. Gallo is the largest vineyard owner in Sonoma County.

                              I also like just about anything from Dry Creek Valley.

                              I also don't like Zins that are over oaked.

                              Ridge wines still rock if you can give them at least two or three years, five to seven is usually better.

                              Zin needs heat to ripen. The wines that I like come from warm sites with cool nights that keep the acidity up. With enough acidity it's possible to get balance even with higher alcohol. The acidity gives it a finish and keeps it from being a pruny overripe fruit bomb.

                              10 Replies
                              1. re: Calamityville

                                Absolutely, it's all about balance. With climatic warming, pH and acidity levels are not what they used to be. I think there is an alcohol sweet spot for Zinfandel where 14 to 14.5% ABV correlates with adequately ripe flavors for a majority of sources.

                                I'm actually tasting LESS pruniness generally in zins, due to methods that encourage more even ripening and fewer raisins in bunches. Zins from the 70s were all over the board and the raisined signature in an otherwise moderate alcohol wine was typical.

                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                  You can't blame the weather. Even in cooler recent years they've been making wines that are way higher in alcohol than from hotter years prior to the changes in viticultural practices that deliberately favor overripe grapes.

                                  As Jancis Robinson put it, "[California] winemakers, encouraged by a culture which is fearful of chewy tannins or even a whiff of the leafy aromas they have been taught to associate with underripeness, are apparently obsessed by giving grapes longer and longer 'hang time' in the vineyard." Or as she quotes Bob Lindquist, "15 is the new 14."

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    Ripeness levels and alcohols are rising around the world, and not always by deliberate choices of global winegrowers. Viticultural practices of a small number of producers in California is only a small, narrow part of the issue.

                                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                                      Do you have cites for that?

                                      I've read numerous articles in Wines & Vines that made it clear to me that wineries have been changing pruning techniques, increasing hang time, measuring ripeness by different standards, and so on. None of the winemakers in those articles blamed the weather or otherwise made out like high-alcohol fruit bombs were an accident.

                                      I'm still finding a solid percentage of French, Italian, Spanish, and South African wines that are by my standards balanced. Not so for California or Australia.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Balanced is a different question than whether alcohol levels are rising.

                                        Here's a quick one - a recent article on the situation in Spain and the impacts that climatic change is having on their vineyards.

                                        Winemakers in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley are anticipating making much riper wine styles as "Napa Valley North" due to warmer weather. However, warmer temperatures is only one side of the climatic picture. More variability is also expected.

                                        Edited to add: Here's a more detailed article written by my friend David Furer, that includes a quote from Bernard Seguin, a climate change specialist with France's INRA (National Institute for Agricultural Research -
                                        "Seguin noted that Alsace has seen a rise in alcohol level of 2 degrees Celsius over the past three decades, with harvest shifting from October 1 to September 1. Projections for France by the end of the 21st century have three weeks more advanced maturing than what we see currently. With increasingly milder winters, dormancy will begin earlier as will the ripening rate. Oceanic events, such as the slowing of the Gulf Stream, will have a greater impact upon global warming than atmospheric events (such as the emission of greenhouse gases)."

                                        Certainly changes in viticultural practices in California are partly responsible, but hang time is only part of the picture. Replanting after phylloxera, better rootstocks, sturdier non-virused clonal material, etc. have also contributed to healthier vines and better balanced fruit that sugars up faster and higher before flavors and tannins ripen. Yeasts are evolving too and are more efficient at producing alcohol per unit of sugar.

                                        1. re: Melanie Wong

                                          That article's about planning for global warming over the coming century, not recent vintages.

                                          I'm talking about the changes over the past 15-20 years, not the next 100.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Sorry, I missed this post while typing my edit above. This is something that I think the INAO or another regulatory body may keep stats on and I'll try to see if I can find something in English.

                                            In the meantime, some food for thought. Germany, the coolest and northernmost major wine producing country, has had an unbroken string of good to outstanding vintages since 1988. English wine is coming on strong. Remember how lean and mean the typical Italian wine was 20 years ago and the alcohol levels compared to today.

                                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                                              So maybe they'll be planting mourvedre in Burgundy soon?

                                              1. re: SteveTimko

                                                Perhaps, although current AC regs would not allow it to be labeled as Bourgogne. (vbg)

                                          2. re: Melanie Wong

                                            "However, warmer temperatures is only one side of the climatic picture. More variability is also expected."

                                            You're right on the money, Melanie. With the myriad changes in temperature come those in precipitation patterns, frequency, seasonality, etc. Despite all the highly funded propaganda to make us believe this occurs at the century level, we are seeing decadal changes. Valleys with large scale irrigation systems intact will have a buffer, for how long is unknown, those growing in areas that rely on a regular seasonal rainfall pattern for their sole or primary source of irrigation, would suffer the most.

                                2. It's been a while but I always liked Storybook Mountain for their less jammy Zinfandels. My better half likes bug fruity Zins though so....

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: GGS

                                    As I recall they used to be one of the biggest, but if they stayed the same, that might make them understated by modern standards.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      Storybook Mountain's zins have historically had ferocious tannin and taken quite a while to come around. In the recent years, they've been playing around with methods to make the wines fruitier and more accessible, including cofermentation with white grapes (e.g., Viognier).

                                      1. re: Melanie Wong

                                        hello, I've drunk Storybook zins over the past 20+ years and much prefer their former style. Granted, my palate has probably been tannin-inured by too many coffee and tea tastings, and I put the wines away for 6-8 years. I liked them 'cause they stood out from the crowd style-wise, and through the mid-90s or so they were usually between the high 13s and low 14s in alcohol %. When the wine changed its style and upped the alcohol, they've become more successful in sales and volume, so they'll hardly miss my trade. cheers

                                  2. four vines makes one called the sophisticate out of sonoma county... definitely a softer, *more* well balanced style. i don't think that anyone is making a seamless, well balanced zin these days. that sophisticate is good, though. their maverick is also quite good--i think that's out of paso, although i'm not sure.

                                    1. actually, the maverick is out of amador...

                                      1. Green and Red
                                        Chateau Mont Helena
                                        Macaymus (used to be quite good)
                                        Hop Kiln (once made a vintage that wowed everybody)
                                        Frogs Leap

                                        1. As has been mentioned, Turley. Another producer that I like is Robert Biale. He has several properties, that he produces from. Some are vineyards that are also "shared" by other Zin makers. His Black Chicken is one of the best that I've had in years, but Aldo's, Grande and Dogtown Flats are all good, when produced. I think he might be the only winemaker using Spenker Vineyard grapes, but when it's made, it is great.

                                          Rosenblum also has a great range of good Zins. Some are heavily concentrated, but others are a bit more "pure."

                                          If you can find them, Piccetti (Santa Cruz Mtns.) do a fine lineup.


                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                                            Turley and Rosenblum are the epitome of the kind of overripe, overly alcoholic contemporary zins I find undrinkable. In fact, it was one of Rosenblum's tastings that made me realize just how bad things had gotten--I tried all 25 or however many and didn't find one I wanted to drink.

                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              It's interesting to read the opinions of those who have been around and drank wine longer, most of whom do not like the big, extracted wines produced lately; and then compare them to the opinions of those who have only been drinking wine for < 10 years, most of whom find old style wines too light, lean, watery and sometimes green.

                                              I find myself somewhere in the middle, as my 2 favorite wines right now are the 2003 Amon-Ra Shiraz (Massive extracted fruit bomb) and the 1995/96 vintages of Moillard Grand Echezeaux (Elegant and spicy, though some of my firends consider it to light)

                                              1. re: newJJD

                                                Count me as relatively new wine drinker, less than ten years, who can't stand being punched in the face with 15% wine. Some of these things are almost a physical assault. Maybe that's why I don't like any Zin I've had nearly as much as virtually any Beaujolais-Villages or the lighter, airier Burgundies, like Marsannay. I no longer even try liking wines over 14, 14.5% now. I don't mind tannins, but please spare the alcohol, oak, raisins, or even fruit if it stands too far forward.

                                          2. The Zins I have been enjoying lately are:

                                            Marietta Cellers Old Vine Lot 40. Zin, Petite Sirah and Carignane Blend. Zin dominates 13.5% Juicy blackberries and cassis. I've been drinking this since Lot 12. A great everyday wine. My house wine.
                                            Bogle Old Vine. A little gustier than the Marietta. Stands up to BBQ, etc 14.5%
                                            Alderbrook Old Vine 14.2%. A nice, well-balanced zin.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: Wineman

                                              Hello, the Marietta OVR is one of my favorites as well. As I'm sure you know, it's non-vintage 'cause they mix years in the 'lot', but really does well with 3-5 years of cellaring(since it tastes like a $25 wine I figure I might as well treat it like one). You have an expert palate to pick out the dominant zin, you undoubtedly know it can't call itself zin with less than 75% of it, and I think that's a big factor behind both its complexity and moderate alcohol % compared to most zins labelled as such. Blindfold tasted, novices like myself could mistake it for a southern French style blend with syrah, caringnan, mourvedre, cabernet. Of the many Ridge zins, the ones that often are closer to the older style are in the field blend genre, and some like the Marietta aren't labelled as zin. The other factor that sets the Ridge wines apart is Draper's use of air dried oak in his cooperage. cheers

                                              1. re: moto

                                                I used to love Ridge Lytton Springs when it was 100% zin. Now the blend just doesn't do it for me. It is quite good but it doesn't justify the price.
                                                Do you remember the name of the female winemaker for Lytton Springs (the winery) back in the 80's. Draper was making his Ridge version also. Both were outstanding. But then I liked bigger, more powerful zins then.

                                            2. What do you eat with these, anyway? I mean with zinfandel, in general. I have close to zero meanigful experience with this varietal.

                                              I have a couple of 1997 Turleys that have stayed buried in my cellar because I never knew what's good to pair with these. Somehow, I wasn't too encouraged about opening a bottle especially when a neighbor commented that it should go well with pizza and burgers.

                                              4 Replies
                                              1. re: RCC

                                                You say that like it's a bad thing.

                                                A pepperoni and mushroom pizza, a good Chicago-style deep-dish sausage pizza, or a really good rare charcoal-grilled hamburger are all great with a good zin.

                                                My all-time favorite combination for a big zin was BBQ pork ribs. Another old favorite was grilled Aidell's duck sausages, but after he sold the company the evil fat-hating new owners stopped making them.

                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                  Good. I'll pop it open while waiting for nice dry-aged Lobels on the grill, then.

                                                2. re: RCC

                                                  Ribs, pulled pork, almost anything on the grill or smoker.

                                                  1. re: RCC

                                                    Turley Zins often pair well with duck, lamb, venison or other full flavored meats, especially if prepared in a way that picks up some aspect of the fruit or spice inherent to Zin.