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Jun 22, 2007 11:07 PM

Lack of Spiciness in Zinfandels

Has anyone else bemoaned the lack of spiciness in Zinfandels these days?

I've always thought that spiciness was a necessary component of a great zin --
that black/white pepper or cayenne zing at the back of the mouth.
It often seems lost in the presence of ripe (over-ripe) fruit.

My great enjoyment of Zin in the past was characterized by two important "bookends":
The first was Zin's forward cherry fruit (not jammy) right smack at the beginning;
the second was the peppery zing at the end. Such a delicious difference
and contrast in flavors! All in one wine! It was as though one "traveled through"
the experience of Zinfandel, and the journey was clearly marked by these two signposts.

Now the fruit is often jammy and blackberry in nature -- not cherry -- and the wine
is less lively, less acidic, and without that critical spiciness. Yes, higher in alcohol too.

Do others feel similarly and are there recommendations for Zins with both "bookends"?

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  1. Of course! Because as long as winemakers are making the "super-ripe," "jammy" style, much of the spiciness is lost . . . .

    (IMHO, of course)

    1. The spiciness is, to me, the whole point of a Zin...

      Which ones are you finding to be stinkers? At least that will help others with this preference avoid the same fate :-)

      Last year on the way back from Shasta, my wife and I stopped in at Michael & David winery and left with a bottle of Earthquake Zin, for which we paid about $20-25 (I think). This was before I started keeping tasting notes on bottles of wine, but I do remember it being a nice, spicy bottle that was not too ridiculously big. However, the label I found online says 15.5% alcohol. Go figure.

      20 Replies
      1. re: ttriche

        Way, way, way too much focus on alcohol % lately. I wish people would simply drink the bottle and not have a prejudiced opinion based on alcohol. Sure there are some wines that have a high % that are "hot" but there are plenty that are well balanced and multidimensional. "Oh look honey, it is 15.5% alcohol, that is way too high". Nonsense I say !

        1. re: TonyO

          In this case, though, TonyO, the high alcohol means an important flavor of Zinfandel is lost. When Zin fruit is picked in an over-ripe state (with high amounts of sugar leading to a high percentage of alcohol), the spiciness is lost. So it's not a complaint about alcohol -- it's a complaint about loss of flavor (and also loss of acidity and liveliness).

          This is true for many grapes: when the alcohol goes up, many flavors of the grape disappear. Sure, you get lots of jammy fruit, but other flavors are casualties.

          1. re: maria lorraine

            Find me guilty, but I prefer fruit over herbaceous / woody / menthol / tar in wine. I know this is just my opinion, but there is an inherent complexity to dark / red fruits such as currants/blueberries/cherries etc. that for me is more enjoyable than nonfruit flavors. There can also be a spicy / peppery componenet form fruit although it is more restrained.

            I for one, welcome this "new" style of wine is it compliments the cuisine that I (and many other Americans) enjoy; barbecue, pasta, simply grilled meats and seafoods. I guess I just don't run in the same circles as those CH'ers that are dining on escargot and Coq Au Vin on a daily basis.

            To the OP, I recently enjoyed some Naked Vine zins that were fruity AND spicy. I have also found many of the single vineyard designated Ravenswood Zins to be delicious. If you want a real treat, try to find some Sineann Old Vine Zin.

            1. re: TonyO

              TonyO, this is not an either/or situation. You seem to be implying that a wine, in this specific case Zinfandel, must either be "fruit[y]" OR "herbaceous" and "woody," etc.

              This is simply not true.

              1. re: zin1953

                To find a Zin that balances (and I think that is they key word) all componets is certainly a rewarding experience. I guess my point (as confusing as it may have been !) is the lack of enjoyment I receive from Zins that tone down the fruit in an attempt to be less jammy. My ideal Zin (or Sangiovese / Petite Syrah / multiple grape Blends) is fruit forward, smokey, slightly peppery (black not green), with a finish reminiscient of vanilla. Maybe my tastebuds are playing tricks on me, but that is exactly what I taste in many Segehsio Zins and many of my favorite wines from Oregon / Washington. If you have never tried Ex Umbris from Owen Roe, give it a try.

                1. re: TonyO


                  Please do not misunderstand me when I say this. This isn't about "one-upsmanship" (up-person-ship?), or about who knows more, etc., etc. My only objectives here are to a) share knowledge with others, and b) to learn from others. I presume we are all beginners, simply because I don't want to assume someone knows something and then leave them wondering because I left out something I may have thought was basic but in fact was not.

                  So, with that as background, let me first tell you that I spent 35+ years in the California wine trade, and have taught wine courses for some 30 years. Additionally, I used to "import" Sineann and Owen Roe wines into California (i.e.: I was the sales manager of their CA wholesaler), among many other Oregon and Washington State wines. So, yes, I've had most if not all of the wines you've mentioned so far in this thread.

                  Keep in mind, first and foremost, that there are very few *wrong* answers when it comes to wine appreciation. When you say "X" is the best wine you have ever tasted, no one can tell you you're wrong! After all, you have your taste buds in your mouth, not theirs. And if they disagree with you, it often boils down to "personal palate preference," and no one can tell you you're wrong about what you like and dislike.

                  In other words, people can be technically wrong about specific items, but they can't be wrong about what they themselves like and dislike.

                  With that in mind, can I address a couple of specifics?

                  >>>> fruit forward, smokey, slightly peppery (black not green), with a finish reminiscient of vanilla <<<<

                  A "fruit forward" quality obviously comes from the grape itself, and how that fruit is handled during winemaking. But you can have a "fruit forward" wine at 11 percent alcohol, and you can have a "fruit forward" wine at 15 percent alcohol. In other words, "fruit forward" does not in and of itself mean OVERripe. It's all in how you make the wine . . .

                  "Smokey" is not the characteristic of any grape that I can think of, with the possible exception of some Alsatian Pinot Gris. Generally it comes from the level of toast on the inside of the (generally oak) barrel.

                  "Peppery" -- black, green *and* white -- is a characteristic found in many grapes, most notably Petite Sirah (black), Cabernet Sauvignon (green), and Syrah (white). The organic molecule that gives bell peppers its aroma is also found in Cabernet Sauvignon -- the very same molecule! So, in some sense, if there isn't at least a hint of it there, one may wonder if the wine is really Cabernet Sauvignon. But it's also a matter of climate and concentration: colder climate means more green pepper notes; so, too, does "underripeness." But in higher concentrations, the bell pepper notes disappear and is replaced by an aroma resembling canned asparagus -- thus, the dreaded "Monterey Vege." (Definitely a flaw!)

                  Finally, "vanilla" generally comes from the oak, and never from the grape itself.


                  1. re: zin1953

                    Speaking of the "dreaded Monterey Vege," I have a vertical of Chalone's A-Frame Cab (late '70s - '80s), that I really need to consume. I think that I'll gather a bunch of my wino friends, who will drink "anything" and just crack them all open. I have to admit that some of the more (much more) recent Monterey Cabs, have lacked this note. Not sure if it's the winemaking, the clones, the differences in altitude/exposure, etc., but a few have been surprisingly nice, compared to the earlier offerings.


                    1. re: zin1953


                      Your replies are always appreciated and certainly contain more information than almost any source (especially one that is free of charge !). I sometimes wish I had tastebuds that were pleased with Riunite ! I opened a 2002 Dubrul Cab Sav from Owen Roe over the weekend and to me, that was about as good as it gets. Black fruit, some spice, and a long silky finish. Perfect ! Now if I could find that profile for $10 instead of $60..............................

                    2. re: TonyO

                      Just a clarification...

                      Tony O, you and I are both talking about "lack of enjoyment" in Zins:
                      yours coming from those "Zins that tone down the fruit in an attempt to be less jammy."

                      My gripe with jammy, massive fruit is that although it may create an impact, it’s not
                      interesting enough to make up for the loss of spice and other supporting flavors that add complexity and personality to a wine. It’s like hearing one loud note instead of a chord.

                      This relates to something I call varietal erosion, and it’s happening with Zin, Sangiovese, Cab, Syrah and others. Each wine grape has a definitive flavor profile. When some defining flavors of a varietal are lost to overripeness, the wine is *less* of what it is, not more. Add to that the loss of acid and liveliness, and overripeness seems too big a price to pay.

                      When I judge Zinfandels or any variety of wine, the other judges and I huddle together beforehand to agree on what flavors must be present in the wine for it to be considered varietally correct. Cherry/berry and spice are essential in Zinfandel and both must be present for the wine to qualify, certainly to be medaled, in that category.

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        I guess we are on the same page in a round about manner ! I certainly appreciate a fine complex bottle of wine rather than a one dimensional liquified blackeberry preserve ! I think we are both talking about extreme styles, but our preferences may be a bit different (I would prefer a wine (Zin/Syrah) that may be a bit overly jammy versus one that is predominately herbaceous or vegetal . I seem to struggle with wine that has a strong presence of cedar especially. I rarely cellar my wines with the exception of Barolo and Cabernet Franc (and some Cab Sav depending on the vintage/vintner) due to fear of losing the youthful fruit of the wine. I have enjoyed the rewards of cellaring/decanting as the wine seems to "blossom" and turn from enjoyable to magnifient (a recently opened 1989 Kennan Cab Franc was a great example). Maybe I just haven't spent enough $$ to find a Bordeaux that is enjoyable as almost all that I have had left me wondering what the hoopla was all about. I find the wine to be complex yet somehow a bit too "sedate". I guess I like my wine the way I like my comedy; big, brash, somewhat, simple, and not very cerebral (Chris Farley) as compared to meandering, intellectual, and thought provoking (maybe Monty Python ??). Wow, talk about getting off of topic !

                        1. re: TonyO

                          TonyO, sure appreciate your response but we're not yet understanding one another here...and I'd like to try one more time to see if we can.

                          When flavors are lost to overripe fruit, I'm not talking about about <overly jammy versus...predominately herbaceous or vegetal.> Your comparison here is an overripe wine vs. a highly flawed wine.

                          I'm talking about flavors that are more subtle. Lots of greys instead of black/white.
                          Lots of subtle fruit flavors, spice flavors, floral notes, mid-range, etc. Those are lost with jammy fruit. As well as liveliness!

                          Your comedy line is funny, but it focuses on two ends of the spectrum --
                          brash and overt vs. ponderous and cerebral. An enormous range is between those two. Still talking about greys, shades of flavors, subtleties, grace notes, complexity, roundness, finesse, elegance.

                          Lovely to hear you're exploring wine and have some nice bottles in your cellar to enjoy.

                          1. re: maria lorraine


                            I understand what you are saying, but I do think you are oversimplifying the matter.

                            To me, the most complex (spice and earth wise) Zins are also high-alcohol and jammy (Martinelli Jackass/Hill). With other styles of wne this can hold as well -- take Amarones for example. No one can deny that they are increidbly ripe, rich, dark, potentially jammy wines... yet the layers of flavor and soil and spice in them can be utterly immense. (And we don't need to get in to whether Amarones are 'lively'). Obviously that is a rediculously unique style of winemaking, I'm just using it to demonstrate a point, though... That I don't think pure alchol level, or jamminess, can be assumed to be directly and causally inversely proportional to earth/spice notes.

                            1. re: whiner

                              Whiner, thank you for your response. I'm a lover of Amarone...just give me a hunk of Reggiano and aged balsamic with it, and I apprehend the sublime.

                              I understand my palate preferences are not the same as yours or anyone else's. I felt I had to "oversimplify," as you call it, just to be clear in deciphering the muddled comparisons. Certainly some Zins have jammy fruit and manage to keep spice notes, but these do seem to be the exception, do they not? I'm not saying there is an *invariable* inversely proportional relationship (causality) of jammy-hi alc wines to loss of spice notes and other subtle fruit flavors, but that does seem to be the rule. I'm quite happy that you've pointed out the Jackass Hill as an exception, and I've gotta try it.

                              Another subtlety is: what kind of jamminess? Cherry jam in Zin, with spice and other flavor notes intact, great. Blackberry jam/cassis -- is that Zinfandel anymore? Blackberry jam/cassis without spice notes and low acid -- is that Zinfandel? Is that even a well-made/well-grown wine?

                              To quote Socrates, which kind of blows my mind all by itself: "…in the subject under discussion…I will then carry the argument through in accordance with my own ideas…I do not speak with any pretense to knowledge, but am searching along with you." Cheers to all, thanks for your words, keep 'em coming and the juice flowing!

                              1. re: maria lorraine


                                I'm glad I could provide some comic relief here ! I do understand your points and this may be just a matter of preference in relation to styles of Zin. My only confusion at this point is your line "cherry jam in Zin, with spice and other flavor notes intact, great". "Blackberry jam/cassis - is that Zinfandel anymore?" Either we are drinking very different wines or we are just tasting something differently. The Zins I drink (Seghesio, Rosenblum, Four Vines, Ridge, Sineann, etc.) seem to always be dominated by black fruit (maybe not always to the extent of being jammy). The nose is also (in my experience) blackfruit and cracked pepper in most of these. I personally like to be able to have a glass of wine fill the room with it's aroma (a few that have done this are Cuvee Le Bec (Beckman ?), Shotfire Ridge Barossa Cuvee, and some the of Big zins. Granted, these wines would not be appropriate in all settings, but I find I enjoy them especially without food (just pouring a glass or two...) or with barbecue.

                                I would enjoy hearing about any specific Zins that you enjoy. I'll be sure to try a few and report back.

                                1. re: TonyO

                                  Ridge Lytton Springs and Geyserville are two that stand out, TonyO, which -- to my palate -- are in sharp contrast to the Zinfandels of Sineann and Rosenblum. (Ridge Zins from Pagani Ranch or Paso, less so.)

                                  Other examples of great (IMHO, of course) Zinfandels that do not venture into the "jammy" would include, in alphabetical order: CAROL SHELTON (though they can get close in some vintages, I admit), DASHE, Easton, Gallo Sonoma (don't laugh), Gary Farrell, GRGICH HILLS, Meeker, Quivera, Robert Biale (see Carol Shelton), Saddleback Cellars, Spelletich, STORRS, STORYBROOK MOUNTAIN, T-Vine, UNTI . . .

                                  (Particular favorites in capitals.)

                                  Let me make a distinction in something Maria Lorraine has said. I think the quintessetial character of Zinfandel is olallieberry -- a blackberry-loganbery cross. So I have a hard time objecting to "blackberry" as a descriptor for Zinfandel.

                                  But, at least within the trade, "jammy" is often used to describe overly alcoholic wines with flabby fruit, whereas, among many consumers, "jammy" can be a good thing because they often use the term to describe a concentration and purity of fruit, without referring to the "flabby" or "sweet" or "cooked" (versus "fresh") quality to that fruit. In MY own personal lexicon, while writing TNs, I try to distinguish between the two camps by using the descriptor "compote" (rather than "jammy") for the commonly held "trade" definition.

                                  The problems arise when the wine -- at whatever its actual alcohol level may be (and remember, it is the least accurate "fact" on the label) -- comes across as hot and alcoholic and out-of-balance; when the fruit is cooked; or when the wine is too low in acidity.

                                  1. re: zin1953


                                    Nice distinction about "jammy" as I use that reference (like most consumers) as a positive (or at least neutral) descriptive referring more to the concentration and fruit "essence" rather than sweetness or processing.

                                    In Vermont, we are somewhat limited to what is available (although it is improving and our state has some odd laws about shipping which can work to our advantage). I'll try to find a few of those you mentioned and report back. The Biale line is on several restaurant lists (one seasonal restaurant, The Inn at Shelburne Farms had the 2002 a couple years ago for $50, their markup is about as low as I've ever encountered in VT). I have encountered what I term "fumes" from an overtly alcoholic wine and it is not enjoyable at 11% or 16% !

                                    I had the Ridge Lytton Springs at dinner several months ago and found it to be utterly enjoyable.

                                    1. re: zin1953

                                      Hm-m-m, Pagani Ranch. Just had the opportunity to host a slightly-mixed horizontal of Pagani Ranch Zins. IIRC, Mr Pagani died in what, '01? This tasting was of five producers, who sourced fruit from his vineyard. Gotta' get the notes, to refresh the memory. They were from the '01-04 vintages and there were a few small verticals in the group. Great, just great! Lovely wines, and a bit "across the board," with respect to the finished wines.

                                      As for Robert Biale, I'd normally typify his offerings as "jammy," by my palate. OTOH, many of his wines are at the top of MY Zin list. I'll take a Black Chicken over most Turleys, though I like the majority of them.

                                      To me, Storybook Mtn is about as lean and "spicy," as contemporary Zins get. I like these, but probably drink more of the fuller-bodied, fruit-forward iterations - personal tastes.

                                      Hope this doesn't look too bad, as the sun is coming through the palms, and is right in my eyes now. Forgive any typos, or breaks in continuity.


                                      1. re: zin1953

                                        Zin1953, you are again eloquent and specific here. I especially appreciate the olallieberry reference and the differing definition of jammy between the trade and consumers. Youve given so many lovely recs of Zinfandels. Thank you so much, and I always enjoy reading your posts.

                                      2. re: TonyO

                                        TonyO, thanks so much for engaging in this dialogue. Sometimes CH posting is not for the faint of heart! Appreciate your recs and I'll check them out.

                    3. re: TonyO


                      No ONE factor should be used in making a decision to buy/pass on a wine -- not vintage, not appellation, and certainly not the alcohol content (the most inaccurate "fact" on the label). But -- IMHO -- Maria Lorraine is quite right. Picked too ripe, the spiciness of Zin is lost.

                      Just my experience, and --yes -- there are exceptions. But they're called "exceptions" for a reason . . .


                  2. Storybook still does an "old-style," which is actually a "new-style," predicated on how far one wants to go back to US Zin production. I recall the true "old-days," when the ABV levels were way up there, though the fruit was lacking. Then came the moderate producers, like Storybook, and spice was the "big thing." I really like these, though have to admit to being a fan of the "really BIG" Zins, that some good producers release.

                    If I encounter any "retro-style" Zins (actually neo-retro-style, but I digress), I'll make a note on this thread.

                    That said, it's off to the cellar for some Biale, Aldo's, for my dinner...

                    Take care,

                    1. Some high alcohol, jammy Zins are als quite spicy. Martinelli Jackass and Jackass Hill come to mind.

                      If you can get your hands on some, try Rafanelli -- the most elegant Zin, imo.

                      1 Reply
                      1. This week in the New York Times, Eric Asimov has written a kicky little piece on Zinfandel, speaking of some of the same issues in this thread.

                        One of his passages: "Then, [I tasted] a 2004 Turley from the Dusi Vineyard in Paso Robles. Turley is the nitro-burning funny car of the zinfandel world, more powerful than most others, and this was no exception. I found remarkably dense, almost sweet flavors of cherry and raspberry, but missed the peppery bite I find in many other zins. This one wasn’t compelling, at least not with this food." Nitro-burning funny car -- love it.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          Interesting TNs. "Nitro-burning funny-car... " Yes, I see where he was coming from. However, I do really appreciate the Turleys and the Biales, but also the Storybook Mtn. Zins. They all have a place in my heart and on my palate.

                          Still like the metaphors, though. Thanks for sharing.