Zinfandel has a lot going for it, but it also has its share of problems and missed opportunities.
The wine is uniquely Californian. It grows well in many areas of the state, is capable of expressing terroir and is stylistically versatile. But it could win a much wider following if producers shifted gears and aimed it in the direction of where Pinot Noir is headed, where the emphasis is on fruit purity, supple textures, greater balance and finesse and softer tannins.
That said, I wouldn't for a minute change the style of some of the big boys. The amazing, powerful expression of a Turley Hayne Vineyard or a Rosenblum Rockpile Vineyard Zinfandel shouldn't be sacrificed. These kinds of vineyards are genuine treasures and the wines are proof that big can be balanced. But most Zinfandel vineyards can't produce wines of that caliber, character and depth on a consistent basis, and that's the problem.
Winemakers’ desire to showcase a single site often overlooks what might be achieved by tweaking a wine through blending, along the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Grapes such as Carignane, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Syrah could fill in flavor and textural gaps, and give the wine a silkier texture and added flavor dimension.
Too often Zinfandel's quirks and idiosyncrasies are readily apparent in the wines. The grape is difficult to grow, sets uneven-sized clusters and berries and then, as a result of that, ripens unevenly. (Site and precision farming are essential to its success.) Too often Zinfandels are unbalanced, that is, they're short on fruit density and character and simple or hollow from midpalate on. The mix of high acidity and alcohol and dry, chewy tannins define the wine, rather than its more pleasurable wild berry and pepper nuances.
There are times when I like the wild stallion side of Zinfandel. But many other times I wish that that stallion had been broken, making it more approachable, caressing, even gentle, and so that its graceful strides and subtle nuances can be better appreciated.
I don’t want to strip Zinfandel of its varietal personality. I’d just like to harness it a bit and move it in the direction of where Pinot Noir is headed.