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Who Says Zinfandel Doesn't Age?

Retrospective tasting of 1991 and 2001 prove the contrary
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 24, 2011 10:15am ET

Zinfandel ages well.

There! I said it. You wanna make something of it? Huh?

Because I’m not flapping my gums just for the breeze. I have proof. Sure, folks will tell you that Zin won’t get better with age, that you should drink them fast before all that snazzy fresh fruit fades into oblivion.

But they’ve got it all wrong. Zinfandel can age with the best California wines; OK, except for maybe the crème de la crème Cabernet Sauvignons. Why am I so cocksure of this fact? I put it to the test with a blind tasting of 1991 and 2001 Zins.

I have to say that the 2001s were a revelation. Not only had most retained their vibrant and spicy flavors but many had improved since their release, filling out and taking on additional layers of complexity.

That was particularly true with four wines. The Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma County Old Vine led the pack, scoring a 94 on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. It was bursting with youthful fruit and ripe tannins. Carol Shelton Zinfandel Russian River Valley Karma Zin Old Vines Rue Vineyard Wood Road (93 points) was still darkly colored, rich and complex. Ditto for Williams Selyem Zinfandel Russian River Valley Forchini Vineyard North Flats (93) and Easton Zinfandel Fiddletown (92).

The 1991s were past their prime but were still fairly spry for their age, particularly three wines. Ridge Geyserville, which I rated 89 points, was rusty red in color and offered soft notes of cherry, dill and tea. It looked and tasted like a 30- or 40-year-old Cabernet. I had similar reactions to the Easton Zinfandel Amador County (88) and the Seghesio Zinfandel Alexander Valley Old Vine Reserve (88).

Seghesio winemaker Ted Seghesio wasn’t surprised at the result. “That 2001 is still one of the best wines we've ever made,” he said. As for the 1991, it was truly an old-school Zin, Seghesio said, fermented completely in concrete tanks.

There was another myth that this tasting disproved: "High-alcohol wine can’t age."

Of the top 2001 Zinfandels, the Easton had the lowest alcohol level, at 14.8 percent, with the Carol Shelton’s ranking highest at 16 percent. As for the 1991s, Ridge Geyserville clocked in at 14.3 percent, Easton at 14.7 percent and Seghesio registered at 13.6.

All that said, a number of the wines with 15.5 and higher alcohol levels—and most were from 2001—came across as soft, hollow and even rather boring.

Winemakers Seghesio and Bill Easton argue that the level of acidity—not alcohol—is the deciding factor. While high alcohol levels generally mean lower acidity, that contrast doesn't always occur; some vineyards retain natural acidity even in the face of fairly ripe conditions.

I learned one other thing from tasting the 1991 and 2001 Zinfandels. The top wineries back then still make excellent Zinfandels today.

So there you have it, solid proof that Zinfandel can improve with age. I hoped the naysayers learned a thing or two. Now if I can only teach myself the willpower not to open my favorite Zins on release. Even if they do age well, it’s hard to be patient.

What do you think about aging Zinfandel? Tell us your stories about old Zins you’ve tasted.

Nancy Robinson
Phoenix, AZ —  August 24, 2011 12:22pm ET
Other than the fact that I don't drink a lot of Zins, I have never found a Zin that ages well. After about 3-4 years they have either oxidized or turned. These include Turley, Seghesio, and a few other high end wineries. You mentioned in your article that acidity is the key to aging well. I don't find Zin has a lot of acidity, but rather alcohol and FRUIT! And I agree with you that it fades and makes the wine boring. In my opinion, the more fruit forward it is, the less it can age as the grapes are a higher degrees brix at harvest and don't possess the structure required to age wines well, the little acid Zin grapes do have, is gone.
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  August 24, 2011 12:29pm ET
Tim: I agree that 'well-made' Zins can go the distance. I can remember drinking a 1970 Sonoma Vineyards Zin in 1995, made by Rodney Strong; it had a hand writen label. Certainly at 25 yrs of age it was in decline; however, it still had a fair degree of fruit and was smooth as silk. Brickage at the edges but I still gave it 89 pts. For me, the sweet spot of Zins comes between 5 and 8 yrs of age. Some, but not all, can carry thru 9 to 12 yrs. Some of the 10 yr old Zins I've had were remarkable: maintaing the fruitiness of a Zin but taking on some of the characteristics of an older Cabernet. When I come across a great Zin with perfect balance I always try to buy 6 btls so I can enjoy the evolution over 6 yrs; I have a btl 2yrs past vintage thru 8 yrs past vintage. Kind of like aging together with a great friend or spouse, LOL !!!
Steve Balmuth
San Clemente, CA —  August 24, 2011 12:50pm ET
I remember having the 1973 Ridge Geyserville in 1996 that was still beautiful. Also the 1968 Mayacamas Late Harvest Zin was another Zin that aged well, but that was almost Port-like. I love the Easton Zinfandel, it's very a-typical of Amador Zins in that it is lower in alcohol than most other Amador Zins. Young's Zin from Plymouth and of course Biale Zins also age well.
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, CA; USA —  August 24, 2011 12:57pm ET
My most ethereal Zinfandel experience was raiding my parent's cellar in the early 80's with a 10 y.o. bottle of 1972 Ridge Zinfandel "Zeni Ranch" from Mendocino Highlands. It was only 12.6% alcohol, 60% Zinfandel, 40% Carignane. I'm sure the acid was up there too. It smelled like a great claret! Absolutely great bottle bouquet development. The flavor was still brimming w/ Zin-berry fruit. Nothing drop off with age.

I would though agree (with alot of tasting older library samples of Sebastiani Zinfandels), they do tend to fade for the most part after 8 to 10 years. I also think the ageability is more enhanced when grown in Coastal regions than hotter, more interior valleys. Finally, if the fruit was not too raisiny at harvest, it will age better than some overripe, more late harvest picks.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  August 24, 2011 3:55pm ET
Not a big fan of aged zins, the fruit fades and the wine seems dull. I think they are fine up until about age 6 and from there on, its basically down hill. Of course there are always exceptions, and my favorite is Ridge Geyserville which does well up until about age 10, but that is not a true varietal zin as that component seems to top out around 70% or so...
Michael Bennett
Houston, TX —  August 24, 2011 4:53pm ET
I see some skeptics about the ageability of Zins have bad experiences with Zins in the 3-6 years old range. I wonder if Zins go through a "dumb" phase like Bordeaux reds often do.

I have recently had several bottles of Joseph Swan Zin from the 2001 and 2002 vintages. The Swan zins aren't quite as jammy or full as some to begin with, but these aged Zins are just wonderful complex and structured wines. They've certainly made me a believer that Zins can age. Perhaps not all of them, but not all Cabs age well either.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  August 24, 2011 5:21pm ET
Thanks for the comments all. Our impression of how a wine ages is subjective. One person's dead bottle is another's ethereal experience. Nancy and David I'd encourage you to keep trying, but regardless thanks for joining the conversation.
Dan Del Campo
Paso Robles CA —  August 24, 2011 5:34pm ET
I have some !997 Zins. Some from Nicholini in North Napa. They are from old vines. Some have tasted well, some have not. Cellared at 60 degrees from purchase. Some other Zins have not done as well. I believe in most cases with Zin it is hit or miss once past the 6 year mark. Just drink the Zins in the 2-3 year mark and enjoy.
Greg Flanagan
Bethel CT —  August 24, 2011 7:10pm ET
I am a big Zin fan. I have had/have numerous bottles, vineyards, and varying vintages.

Thanks to Tim (and others at WS) there is a platform/voice for this most excellent American varietal.

Over the years I have found a commonality with my aged Zins. The nose might be Amazing.....but the palate and finish is pure port. (Steve mentions this in his post above) Is this a characteristic of the varietal? (I have nearly ideal storage)
John Kane
Dallas, TX —  August 25, 2011 11:51am ET
I disagree with Mr. Fish's assertion that a wine that tastes good at 10 years of age means the varietal, as a whole, can age well. The best Zinfandels of any given vintage ought to be able to age for ten years. For the most part, they are put to oak and have some tannic structure. The 2001 vintage rating indicates that the wines have great structure. Any wine with great structure, regardless of the varietal, ought to sing on its 10th birthday. Plenty of Napa chardonnays can do the same, although they aren't considered particularly age-worthy. As your 1991 retrospective indicates, the wines hardly give any pleasure after an additional decade. A wine that falls of the shelf is a wine that doesn't age well; it is merely a wine that hangs on for a while.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  August 25, 2011 12:14pm ET
John, thanks for the note. The 10 year mark is traditional time when California wines are first judged for age ability. The fact that Zins can age 10 years or more and improve, often as well as Cabernet, is worthy of note.
John Kane
Dallas, TX —  August 25, 2011 3:40pm ET
Mr. Fish, I think your assetion that Zins can "often [age] as well as Cabernet" is an overreaching statement. It is my experience that at 10 years, MOST Napa cabs (say, 90+ pointers) are aging gracefully. I would not say that, at ten years, MOST zinfandel are aging near as gracefully. Certainly, some zinfandel, like California pinot noir, can age beautifully to ten years. But I do not believe that most age as well as cabernet sauvignon during that time period.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  August 25, 2011 4:06pm ET
John my experience has been different from yours but I appreciate your insights.
John Kane
Dallas, TX —  August 25, 2011 4:26pm ET
Yours has also probably been more expansive, given your job. I appreciate your blog and your insights as well. I will keep my fingers crossed that in another 4 years my 2005 Outpost zins will shine like my Outpost cabs. Should be an interesting taste test. Cheers.
Gene Darby
Kansas City, KS —  August 25, 2011 6:31pm ET
Is it wrong for me to say that I don't want California Zin's to get a reputation for aging well? These are some of my favorite wines and some of the best California wines in the $20 to $50 dollar range. If people start thinking they are age-able, prices are sure to start creeping into the stratosphere, like the Napa cab's.
Mike Officer
Santa Rosa, CA —  August 25, 2011 7:51pm ET
Thanks Tim for pointing out that Zins can and do age. In the last couple of years, I've had some 15 to 30 year old Clos du Val, Mayacamas, Swan, and Ravenswood Zinfandels that have developed into beautiful, complex wines. Do all Zinfandels age well? No. But nor do all Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot noirs, Syrahs, or any other variety for that matter.

And Nancy, I'm really sorry any Zinfandel you've had with 3 to 4 years bottle aging has been oxidized or turned. I drink a lot of Zinfandel and can never recall that happening to me. If you're willing to take another chance (and have proper wine storage!), look to Zinfandels from cooler sites in the Russian River or Sonoma Valleys. A few vineyards in Sonoma Valley that typically produce ageworthy wines (in the hands of the right producer of course) are: Monte Rosso, Pagani, and especially Old Hill. In the Russian River Valley, Von Weidlich, Papera, and Ziegler all typically produce Zinfandels naturally high in acidity (pH 3.3 to 3.4 with TA's over 7 g/L) that can age well. There are many others as well, and not just from these two AVAs. Hope you'll continue to explore.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 25, 2011 11:31pm ET
The real dilemma for me is a question of "which ones can I age?". As others have noted, some from Seghesio, Ravenswood, and Ridge I've had success with as well. Other wines (even some from those same producers) I have had dismally bad luck with, though the forecast looked rosy at the time. I began as one who wanted to age zins, due to a couple positive examples I was fortunate enough to experience. But lately, in being disappointed far more often than I've been rewarded, I have swung back to the more conservative position of 5-7 years, which seems to reward me more consistently.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  August 26, 2011 3:30pm ET
Mike, your Carlisle wines are so damn good in their youth I hate to age them very long...maybe I will start laying back a few bottles but as of now, even with my allocations, the oldest in my cellar are the 2007's. Maybe that is my problem overall, I like them in their youth so much, that I don't bother trying to age them. However, I have not had good luck with some other big name producers and just decided to pass on letting them get any additional age on them. My sweet spot is generally 3-6 years, but will keep the vineyards mentioned in mind. Thanks!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  August 26, 2011 4:12pm ET
My question is not "can Zin age?" but "Why age in the first place?" I love zin for its wild , untamed , briary, fruity exuberance. And while aging may provide some nuance, it also essentially always tames the (loveable) beast. So I say drink Zins young (release to maybe 6 or 7 years) and love them for what they are!! Save the aging for the "serious reds". Tonight, I will celebrate this post with a 2006 Miraflores and a big grass fed burger...perfect
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  August 26, 2011 4:48pm ET
I agree that it's hard to hang on to good Zins. I have little or no willpower.
Wincel Beggs
Olive Branch, MS —  August 27, 2011 12:14am ET
I would love to get my hands on some well stored 2001 Gamba Old Vines Zinfandel. I drank my last bottle this spring and it was the best zinfandel I've ever had. It was the last of a six pack and it was the best bottle of the six. The last I had that came close to this in quality was a 1997 Ridge Lytton Springs.
David Lerer
Indialantic, FLorida, USA —  August 27, 2011 7:02am ET
John, get over it and enjoy your Outpost whenever you want. Tim's experiment for Zin age ability is just that, and not a holy Grail mission or a commandment. You drink what you have when you want, and Hopefully it's good enough to still enjoy. While most people do not like aged wines, or have the patience, money, and storage, most others would agree that buying zinfandels to age is not on the top of their buying strategies. Really, the most revelatory of findings from Tim is that Zins having better structure, balance, and higher acidities can endure the test of time, even in light of sometimes higher alcohol. This just means you can let a couple of those Outpost wines sit neglected in your cellar and might still be pleasantly surprised that they can still reward the drinker with a mature, but still vibrant wine. Otherwise, keep drinking, buying, and storing according to your taste.
Paul M Hummel
Chicago, —  August 29, 2011 3:57pm ET
We have been aging zins since the 1977 vintage with very good results. We have noticed that they get leathery and cab-like after 20 years, but still excellent wines with simple meats or game.

The 2001 Seghesio was just recently enjoyed and is going strong.

Zins definitely can be "serious reds.'
Ian Tarrant
Ontario, Canada —  August 29, 2011 6:35pm ET
Coincidentally opened up a 2002 Mayacamus Storybook Mountain Zin a week ago and it was fading, but absolutely lovely.

I liked Andrew's comment, however are reds only 'serious' when aged??

I mostly support the 'Why?' comment in this case as the key attractive attributes of Zin are it's fruit forwardness and lively spice - Both of which may fade in time.

Once again 'Why?' becomes the question and I believe it lies in the 'seriousness' comment, rather than increased complexity and the need for integration of fruit, tannin and alcohol that aging provides.

I would be certainly inclined to jump on the aging bandwagon for Zins if high alcohol could be tamed, but even then I find some of the best high octane Zins have the alcohol seemlessly integrated even when young, so my bias will probably tend to favour drink young and enjoy...
Cody Futch
Dallas, TX —  January 8, 2014 10:01pm ET
I buy several bottles or Martinelli Zin every year and have been curious to hold some back past 6 years but have been nervous because I hate to ruin a wine that is so good young so I usually end up drinking them younger than 6 years. Does anyone have any experience specifically with drinking older Martinelli Zins (from any of their vineyards)?

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