I've been thinking about California Zinfandel a lot lately, its past and the future. For the June 30 issue of Wine Spectator, I sized up the 2011s and 2012s for my annual Zin report and also revisited the 1994 and 2004 vintages in a retrospective tasting.
While top winemakers thrived with the 2011s, the vintage runs the gamut on quality, delivering more than its share of average wines as well. The best wines have precision and focus, with vibrant acidity and slightly lower alcohol levels than usual. But many lack texture, freshness and stuffing, and some wines are downright hard, green and tannic.
"I made some of the worst and some of the best wines I've ever made in 2011," Bedrock winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson said. "It was a huge learning year."
The 2012s could hardly be more different. After challenging harvests in 2010 and 2011, winemakers were genuinely enthusiastic about the 2012 Zins just after harvest. The wines are quite generous, loaded with approachable and voluptuous fruit, but they lack structure almost across the board. That is due in part to the warm weather and the large size of the crop. The top wines and best values in the report, coming from all three vintages, are worth tracking down.
The saying "with age comes wisdom" holds true for my blind tasting of 1994s and 2004s. I rarely do Zinfandel retro tastings. There aren't many 10- or 20-year-old Zins worthy of being put to the test, but I chose these two vintages for specific reasons.
The 1994s marked the first time—after decades of individually great Zins made here and there—that California winemakers collectively made an excellent vintage. In 2004, winemakers discovered how far was too far when it came to ripeness.
Considering their age, several of the 1994s were lovely, particularly the Turley Hayne Vineyard. The 2004s are another story. A warm vintage, it produced superripe wines that were fun to drink immediately. And yet after 10 years, the alcohol was noticeable even in the successful wines, and others were bitter and unbalanced, disjointed by an overwhelming bite of heat.
2004 was another learning year for winemakers, as I detailed in the story.
It was fascinating to revisit the '04s around the same time I tasted the 2011s. For more than a decade, cynics have complained about overripe California wines, Zinfandel in particular. The 2004s are solid evidence in their favor, and yet the 2011s prove that ripeness and alcohol are not the only litmus tests when it comes to Zinfandel.
It's a lot more complicated than that.