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Tasting Note

Posted July 13, 2018 A compelling wine, with expressive blackberry and briary underbrush aromas and refined yet evocative cherry, smoky mint and pepper flavors that linger toward plump tannins.

And the answer is...


There are a lot of elements at play in this week's mystery wine, from its expressive aromas and refined flavors to its plump tannins. Taken together it makes for a compelling sip. So what do we have in our glass?

Let's start with Pinot Noir, a wine often made in a refined style with cherry and berry flavors. But our wine also has plump tannins (Pinot Noirs fall on the lighter side of the tannic spectrum) and briary underbrush and pepper notes, neither of which fall in line with a typical Pinot.

Grenache is the signature red grape of France's Southern Rhône Valley (Syrah dominates the north), but it's also key in Spain's Priorat region and it’s growing in popularity in California, Australia and elsewhere. Grenache-based wines are prized for their berry flavors with peppery accents, and in the Rhône they often show notes of garrigue, a type of underbrush. But like Pinot Noir, Grenache is typically light on tannins, which is why it's often blended with Syrah and/or Mourvèdre.

Gamay is best-known as the grape of Beaujolais, where it makes the bright and fruity Nouveau wines and can also yield some fine wines from the region's top crus. Underbrush and pepper notes are out of line for a Gamay, however, and we're missing any note of pronounced acidity, which Gamays are known for.

Mostly found in Northern Italy, Nebbiolo reaches its pinnacle in the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. The grape makes complex, highly structured and long-lived tannic wines known for cherry flavors and distinct tar and rose aromas. That doesn't sound like our grape either.

The final grape on our list is Zinfandel. Known for its zesty character, Zinfandel's hallmark characteristics include red berry, licorice, spicy pepper and brambly flavors and occasionally a mint note. Versions from warmer regions are often ripe and jammy, while those from cooler sites can be more elegant and structured. We have found our grape.

This wine is a Zinfandel.


Having narrowed our grape to Zinfandel, it should be relatively easy to determine its point of origin. Zinfandel isn't widely grown outside of the U.S. There are little to no plantings in France or Austria, for instance, so we can quickly eliminate those countries from our list.

Fun fact: Zinfandel and the Italian grape Primitivo are both clones of a same grape. Grown in the Puglia region, Primitivo makes round and jammy reds that are typically rustic and chewy. Let's keep looking.

Turning to the New World, winemakers in Australia have been experimenting with Zinfandel since the mid-1970s, but it has yet to really catch on. However, Zinfandel thrives in California, its spiritual home. It's believed the grape was introduced to the U.S. in the early 1800s when a nursery owner brought cuttings from Croatia. It made its way to California during the Gold Rush. California Zinfandel is made in a variety of styles, ranging from full-bodied and jammy to structured and elegant, offering ripe and zesty flavors.

This Zinfandel is from California.


Zinfandel is often made in a style that's ready to drink on release. But some bottlings can benefit from time in the cellar. The grape begins to shed its primary fruit flavors a few years after release, taking on rose petal, sage, black tea and nutty notes. The expressive fruit and lack of mature notes in our wine implies that it is still relatively young.

California winemakers are releasing their 2016 Zinfandels now, but there are still plenty of 2015 wines on the market. California's drought played a role in both vintages, but the weather was more variable in 2016, with several heat waves followed by heavy rains in early October. The 2015 growing season featured mostly moderate weather with some late-season heat producing fruity and concentrated Zinfandels with the potential to age.

This Zinfandel is from 2015, making it three years old.


Now that we have determined our wine is from California, we can eliminate Australia's Margaret River, France's Gigondas, Austria's Burgenland and Italy's Salento.

Carneros is a Northern California AVA encompassing parts of both Sonoma and Napa counties. It has a relatively cool climate in comparison with some of its neighbors, and thus Carneros is best-known for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards that thrive there. But it's one of the few AVAs in California that's not particularly known for Zinfandel.

Located in Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley subregion is cooled by coastal fog that flows along the Russian River and through the Petaluma Gap, a wind gap in the coastal mountain range. The region is best-known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but it's also home to Zinfandel, with some old vines dating back to the late 1800s. Russian River Zinfandels have naturally high acidity, requiring winemakers to aim for ripeness in the wines to balance the flavors. The best Zins have more density and tannins than versions from warmer regions with more dark berry, spice and licorice flavors. That sounds like our wine.

This Zinfandel is from the Russian River Valley.


This is the Carlisle Zinfandel Russian River Valley Papera Ranch 2015, which scored 94 points in the April 30, 2018, issue of Wine Spectator. It retails for $47 and 1,033 cases were made. For more on California Zinfandel, read senior editor Tim Fish's tasting report, "Winning Streak," in the June 30 issue.

—Augustus Weed, tasting coordinator

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