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Zinfandel's Big Question

While 2001 does shine, how ripe is too ripe?

James Laube
Posted: June 25, 2003

  Top-Scoring California Zinfandel  
  Best Values in California Zinfandel  
  California Zinfandel Vintage Chart  

The 2001 vintage for Zinfandel is shaping up as the variety's best year since 1997. While I don't think it's the breakout year that many do, it has warmed the hearts of Zinfandel producers who think the wine is better than ever. "People seem to be looking for something that's authentic and we're lucky to have [Zinfandels] like that," says Pete Seghesio, general manager of Sonoma County Zinfandel specialist Seghesio Family Vineyards, one of the top performers in my tastings of 2001s.

Zinfandel can definitely use the good vibrations. The past three vintages have been tough going for this unique California wine, yielding few outstanding examples. Zinfandel's ranking among California red wines has slipped, giving ground to better quality Pinot Noir, Syrah, and even the oft-mediocre Merlot. Prices have crept up, too, making the wine less of a value in many people's minds. But perhaps the biggest bone of contention with Zinfandel revolves around its being over-the-top stylistically, encompassing wines that are ultraripe and alcoholic.

While superripe Zinfandels may be unappealing to those who prefer more elegantly balanced wines, the high-octane, in-your-face style definitely has its fan base. At the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) annual tasting of new releases and barrel samples, held in January in San Francisco, Fort Mason Center was packed shoulder to shoulder with Zinfandel lovers eager to taste the new wines along with older vintages. Many of the conversations were about whether the wines were too ripe or just right.

The best news is that Zinfandel in 2001 is a big step up in quality from Zinfandel in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The wines appear to be better balanced, better focused, with purer flavors and fewer (so far) of the extreme styles that can be funky and pruny. I say "appear" and "so far" because it's still early going for the new vintage of Zinfandels. The wines are coming to market a little later this year. Many of the top wines were still in barrel as I completed my tastings in March. Some winemakers held their wines for extra aging. Others say slow sales of previous vintages were a factor.

The four bottlings from Seghesio -- Sonoma County Old Vine (92, $28), Alexander Valley San Lorenzo (91, $30), Sonoma County Sonoma (88, $16) and Dry Creek Valley Cortina (88, $28) -- show Zinfandel in a wonderful light. It can be intense and very ripe without going overboard. Each of these wines is deftly balanced and well-focused, highlighting the grape's zesty wild berry, blackberry, pepper, floral and spicy attributes. The Dry Creek Cortina shows off the spicy aromatics and elegant style common to that region in Sonoma County, while the Alexander Valley San Lorenzo delivers more pure fruit.

Winemakers generally agreed on 2001's overall quality, but had decidedly different views of the year's particulars. "2001 is the most optimally ripe vintage of the past three," says Seghesio. The wines don't have green tannins, and they have lower acidity levels than those from either 2000 or 2002, he says. The keys to success in 2001 were generally agreeable weather, which led to even ripening, and harvesting at the right time. Heat spells in August and September made it imperative that vintners harvest before the grapes got too ripe. "You had to be patient, but you had to have your game ready," explains Seghesio.

David Noyes, winemaker for Kunde Estate in Sonoma Valley, says the major difference between 2000 and 2001 is that the former year was cooler at harvest. "2001 shows the potential to be one of our finer vintages," says Noyes, comparing it to 1997.

Joel Peterson, winemaker for Ravenswood, which makes nearly a dozen different vineyard-designated wines, thinks 2001 is one of the greatest years he's seen in a career that dates to 1976, and he predicts 2002 will be similar in quality.

Eric Cinnamon, winemaker for Rancho Zabaco, a Gallo of Sonoma-owned Zinfandel specialist in Sonoma County, says 2001 was highly successful, but not a smooth ride all the way. "There were a few bumps in the road," he says, noting a frost in April and heat spikes during the summer. "Avoiding green flavors was the hardest part of making Zin in 2001."

"After three challenging vintages, 2001 was like a dream come true," says Mike Officer, owner-winemaker of Carlisle, also in Sonoma County, who made his first wines in 1998. But he says his wines had more acid and tannin than usual, in contrast to Seghesio's analysis of his wines. Each of Officer's three Zinfandels -- Russian River Valley Carlisle Vineyard (91, $35), Russian River Valley Tom Feeney (90, $30) and Sonoma County (91, $23) -- earns an outstanding mark while pushing the envelope on ripeness. The Carlisle Vineyard bottling, at 16.7 alcohol, is an opulent bruiser with so much fruit it tastes sweet, despite having only a trace of residual sugar.

It was a stellar year for Neyers Napa Valley Tofanelli Vineyard (91, $35) and Elyse Howell Mountain (92, $32), both rich, plush, deeply concentrated wines. Beaulieu Vineyard's troubles with 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) taint are perhaps over. (The TCA taint, which apparently stemmed from cellar contamination, plagued several of BV's top red wines from the 1997 to 1999 vintages.) The Napa winery's Signet Zinfandel (91, $28) is a rich, opulent wine with wonderful blackberry fruit.

Based on my tastings to date, 2001 is on pace to produce more outstanding Zins than any year since 1997, when roughly 15 percent of the 344 wines earned ratings of 90 or more points. If you compare that performance with that of 1998 (when 5 percent of the wines rated outstanding), 1999 (6 percent outstanding) and 2000 (2 percent outstanding), the early trend shows more exciting wines from 2001. But were this an election, it would still be too early to call.

As for some of the late-release 1999s, I'm a big fan of the Haywood Zinfandels, which come from Los Chamizal, a vineyard in southern Sonoma Valley that routinely produces distinctive Zinfandel. Founder Peter Haywood sold the winery and the label years ago; Judy Matulich-Weitz has been the Haywood winemaker for several years and these are among her best wines. Most of what's bottled under the Haywood Vintner's Select label carries the California appellation and is rather ordinary. The Zinfandels, however, are something special, coming from one of those sites where an obvious match of grape, soil and climate has been achieved. The three 1999s from Los Chamizal -- Rocky Terrace (91, $35), Morning Sun (90, $35) and Los Chamizal (90, $25) -- are similar in structure, with firm tannins wrapped around a dense core of earthy, rustic sage and berry fruit. The wines age well, and need the extra time in bottle.

A trio of 2000s, all of them structured and exquisitely balanced, are also worth a look. Rafanelli Dry Creek Valley (89, $26) comes from one of the state's most consistent and reliable producers, with a house style that captures the rich, earthy, rustic side of Zinfandel, with fine structure. From Napa Valley, the Terraces 2000 (89, $25) is complex, with classic Zinfandel flavors of sage and dusty berry, while the Niebaum-Coppola Edizione Pennino 2000 (89, $44), though more expensive, is also consistently well-made and a delight to drink. It comes from Coppola's Rutherford property and is marked by the same rich, loamy character that runs through the property's Cabernets and Merlots.

Senior editor James Laube is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of California.

James Laube's Recommended California Zinfandels

Top Wines

Wine Score Price
SEGHESIO Zinfandel Sonoma County Old Vine 2001 92 $28
Balanced and harmonious, with inviting blackberry, black cherry, anise, sage and toast. Not shy on muscle or tannic backbone, either.
BEAULIEU VINEYARD Zinfandel Napa Valley Signet Collection 2001 91 $28
Rich and multilayered, with espresso, vanilla bean, blackberry and black cherry propped up by firm, rich tannins. Gains nuance on the finish.
CARLISLE Zinfandel Russian River Valley Carlisle Vineyard 2001 91 $35
Openly sweet and fruity personality built around jammy black cherry and blackberry. A big, opulent yet balanced wine, given its alcohol level.
CARLISLE Zinfandel Sonoma County 2001 91 $23
Ripe blackberry and wild berry fruit, with herbs and spices. Verges on jammy, but holds back, finishing long, with firm acidity and tannins, some smoke and toast.
ELYSE Zinfandel Howell Mountain 2001 91 $32
Intense, with rich, supple texture, wild berry, coffee grounds, black pepper and blackberry flavors, spicy oak and hazelnut. Finishes with a burst of heat.
HAYWOOD Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Rocky Terrace Los Chamizal Vineyard 1999 91 $35
Well-oaked, on the intense side, with tart, dusty blackberry and wild berry flavors that are tight and concentrated.
NEYERS Zinfandel Napa Valley Tofanelli Vineyard 2001 91 $35
Intense and vibrant flavors, with a rich mocha-and-chocolate oak overlay to ripe cherry cola, cranberry, wild berry. Finishes with a rich wall of tannins.
SEGHESIO Zinfandel Alexander Valley San Lorenzo 2001 91 $30
Ripe fruit flavors of blueberry (and piecrust), black cherry and blackberry are deftly balanced, rich and complex. Finishes long, with firm, integrated tannins.
CARLISLE Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2000 90 $30
Lots of ripe, rich, complex fruit -- black cherry, blackberry and raspberry, with touches of mint. Maintains a sense of elegance given its size and alcohol level.
CARLISLE Zinfandel Russian River Valley Tom Feeney Ranch 2001 90 $30
Earthy, minty, spicy blackberry aromas lead to a rich and earthy wine with firm, structured tannins.
HAYWOOD Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Los Chamizal Vineyard 1999 90 $25
Well-proportioned, with pretty mocha-laced blackberry, shoe leather, green pepper and sour cherry flavors. Well-focused, finishing rich and complex.
HAYWOOD Zinfandel Sonoma Valley Morning Sun Los Chamizal Vineyard 1999 90 $35
Harmonious and elegant, with juicy blackberry (and jam), wild berry, floral, sage and light toasty oak. Long, rich finish echoes dark fruit flavors.
NOVY Zinfandel Russian River Valley Carlisle Vineyard 2001 90 $30
Ripe, but shy of overdoing it, with spicy strawberry, blackberry and watermelon scents. Turns supple and finishes with zesty fruit and light toasty oak.
PEZZI KING Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Maple Vineyard 2000 90 $30
Ripe, rich, full-bodied, with hints of earthy raisin, raspberry, blackberry, exotic spices, tar and cedar. Flavors persist through chewy tannins on the finish.

Best Values

Wine Score Price
SEGHESIO Zinfandel Sonoma County Sonoma 2001 88 $16
Wild berry, floral and dark fruit aromas, with rich blackberry jam, anise, cedar and pencil lead flavors. Shortens a bit on the finish, where it shows tannic backbone.
EASTON Zinfandel Amador County 2001 87 $13
Smoky, vanilla-tinged oak frames concentrated red currant, dried raspberry and stewed plum tones, with modest tannins and lingering finish.
BERINGER Zinfandel California Founders' Estate 1999 86 $12
Round, with good depth to currant, earth, plum and sweat flavors. Soft tannins and cedar notes highlight the finish.
RAVENSWOOD Zinfandel California Vintners Blend 2000 86 $11
Chewy, with concentrated dried wild berry, and raspberry, strawberry jam flavors. Pretty vanilla tones linger, with modest tannins and a metallic note.
RAVENSWOOD Zinfandel Lodi 2000 86 $15
Chewy and ripe, with dried raspberry, vanilla and ripe plum flavors, finishing with firm tannins, lively acidity and a peppery note.
BARON HERZOG Zinfandel Lodi Old Vine 2000 85 $13
Hearty and chewy, pleasant, with a wallop of toasted notes and cherry flavors.
BEAULIEU VINEYARD Zinfandel Napa Valley 2001 85 $14
Ripe plum and cherry-scented fruit that's rich and tasty, if shy on focus and nuance. Chalky aftertaste.
BOGLE Zinfandel California Old Vine 2001 85 $11
Currant, wild berry and dried raspberry flavors, picking up vanilla, cedar and tangy structure on the finish.
CLINE Zinfandel California 2001 85 $10
Offers medium-weight blackberry, olive, leather and spicy-peppery aromatics, with similar, if unfocused, flavors.
RANCHO ZABACO Zinfandel California Dancing Bull 2001 85 $10
A touch of matchstick folds into toasty oak and black cherry, with a tart, tangy structure and dried berry notes that carry through the finish.

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