Anyone who pulls together a blind tasting of Zinfandel is asking for trouble. Zin is produced in many different styles, and passions run deep. During a recent tasting with a group of California winemakers, my two favorite wines included the group favorite and one of the overall losers. I guess that's par for the course.
The Seghesio family, consistently among California's top Zin producers, staged the tasting in the Sonoma town of Healdsburg in mid-December. Pete Seghesio, the winery's CEO, and his winemaking cousin Ted Seghesio selected the wines. On hand were Ed Sbragia of Beringer and Sbragia Family, Mike Officer of Carlisle, viticulturist Phil Freese, Italian winemaker Alberto Antonini (who consults with Seghesio) and Seghesio's assistant winemaker Andy Robinson. I was the only journalist participating.
We tasted 16 wines in two blind flights. We knew the Zins were from the 2005 vintage and that most were from Napa and Sonoma counties. I assumed the tasting would include Zins from Seghesio, Carlisle and Sbragia, but Pete and Ted didn't give us any details about which producers were inside the brown bags.
I have been tasting 2005 California Zins all year at the Napa office, and it's one of the best vintages in ages. A long, cool growing season produced wines that are generally well-structured, not overly ripe and have gentle tannins built for short-term aging. That stylistic thread ran through most of the wines, and yet Zinfandel is sufficiently malleable to winemaker whims that the tasting ran the gamut.
Since three of the eight votes came from the house of Seghesio (four if you count Antonini), something of a group palate may have been at play. The panel generally favored more "claret-style" Zins—less overtly ripe and lower in alcohol—although I was hardly alone in voting for wines that had considerably more power and jamminess.
There was general agreement about the top two wines. For the first flight, the panel's favorite was the Seghesio Alexander Valley Home Ranch; for flight two, it was the Rubicon Estate Rutherford Edizione Pennino, which was one of my two favorites of the night. It was my first taste of the 2005 Rubicon, but with its grace and structure it rivaled the 2004 Rubicon (93 points), which was among the top Zins of that vintage.
The Seghesio had opened up considerably since last spring, when I rated it 88 points (on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale). The firm and briary structure had taken on more flesh and elegance and retained all its interesting loamy, licorice and roasted sage flavors. That night I rated it 90.
|Tim Fish talks to the tasting group about the challenges of Zinfandel.|
The main intrigue of the evening came with the two wines that placed last in each flight. There was no question about the first flight. The entire panel—myself included—thought the last-place wine had issues: It was too sweet from residual sugar and funky with balsamic aromas from volatile acidity. Before we unbagged, I made a guess and was right: It was the Rosenblum Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Reserve. I had similar reactions when I tasted it blind on three previous occasions (twice for our tasting report, in which I gave 81 points to the best bottle).
The last place wine of the second flight was a different story, at least for me. I believed it rivaled the Rubicon as the best wine of the night. Before we unbagged it, I argued that while it showed a dollop of sweetness and alcohol, it was rich and supple, with balance and great depth of flavor. But while Sbragia also saw some merit, other panelists thought it was too sweet and high in alcohol. The wine was the Martinelli Russian River Valley Giuseppe & Luisa, one of the top wines (93 points) in Wine Spectator's Zin report published in 2007.
Debate raged on the merits of the remaining 12 wines. Officer was fond of the Hartford Family Russian River Valley while others called it hard and green. Sbragia championed the Green & Red Vineyard Napa Valley Chiles Mill Vineyard while several said it was soft and lacked acid. Discussion then turned to the state of California Zinfandel. The Seghesios, in particular, argued that too many wines are becoming over the top: too sweet, too high in alcohol.
To me, it depends on the wine. The Martinelli is a hefty 16.9 percent alcohol, but has the structure and balance to carry the ripeness. I generally don't pay attention to the alcohol level listed on the label, unless the wine seems somehow out of whack.
We all have different tolerances, but for me it comes down to this: Zinfandel should be loaded with personality. If it's elegance and finesse I'm after, I'll drink Pinot Noir.
California routinely makes outstanding Zinfandels in many styles, from elegant to opulent. That's why winemakers love the grape, and why I get such a kick out of reviewing Zinfandel.
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