What Am I Tasting?

This zesty red has berry, sage and cracked pepper flavors with polished tannins ... Play the game!

October 16, 2020

Our blind tasting game—without the tasting! Can you identify a wine just by reading its tasting note? We post real Wine Spectator reviews. You use clues such as color, aromas, flavors and structure to figure out the grape, age and origin. Good luck!

Tasting Note: A zesty and plump red, with wild berry, toasted sage and cracked pepper flavors that build layers toward polished tannins.

And the answer is...


Variety

Our plump and zesty mystery wine displays wild berry, cracked pepper and herbal flavors with polished tannins. Let’s narrow down our options.

We can start by eliminating Gamay. While Gamay offers vibrant red fruit flavors, our wine’s tannins and toasted sage note are out of character for light-bodied Gamay.

Pinot Noir is produced in several styles around the world. Versions from Burgundy can be savory and earthy, while New World Pinots can be riper and richer, with powerful berry and spice notes. However, Pinots aren’t generally very tannic, and our wine’s cracked pepper note would be unusual for a Pinot.

Sangiovese can show wild berry, sage and pepper flavors. However, while Sangiovese produces tannic wines, these tannins tend to be gripping rather than polished. And our wine is missing Sangiovese’s hallmark plum, red currant, earth and mineral flavors. Maybe there’s a better fit?

When produced in a richer style, Cabernet Sauvignons can be ripe, with plenty of fruit flavors. But Cabernet generally displays its fruits as dark berry notes like blackberry and black plum, accompanied by accents like olive, mint, anise, baking spices and minerals. This doesn’t look like a match for our wine, either.

There are a few styles of Zinfandel, but the grape tends to produce bold and zesty wines with high acidity and moderate amounts of soft tannins. Ripe, sometimes jammy fruit flavors of cherry, raspberry and blueberry are common in Zinfandels, along with the grape’s signature black pepper note and herbal accents like dill or sage.

This wine is a Zinfandel.

Country or Region of Origin

Zinfandel is a mid- to late-ripening grape that grows best in warm, sunny climates and in poor soils with good drainage, which limit the vines’ high yields. It’s also thin-skinned and requires warm weather to fully ripen. This makes New Zealand an unlikely choice for our wine’s origin, with the maritime, Kiwi climate being better for cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir. Zinfandel doesn’t have an active presence in France, either. The same goes for Argentina, where vintners produce rich reds from grapes like Malbec and Cabernet, but not Zinfandel.

There are some Zinfandel plantings in Oregon, concentrated on the state’s Columbia Gorge and Southern Oregon AVAs. But Zinfandel has yet to catch on in the Beaver State, and Pinot Noir continues to be the region’s preeminent red grape. However, Zinfandel is a prominent grape in California’s vineyards, where it is produced in a range of styles. Indeed, the Golden State boasts several impressively old Zinfandel plantings, which can produce some of the grape’s most noteworthy versions. Generally, California’s Zinfandels are zesty and bold, with cherry, blueberry, pepper and herb aromas, often with a briary accent.

This Zinfandel is from California.

Appellation

Knowing that our Zinfandel is from California, we can eliminate New Zealand’s Marlborough, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Argentina’s Uco Valley and France’s Pauillac. That leaves us with California’s Dry Creek Valley and Sta. Rita Hills AVAs.

Located in Southern California’s Santa Barbara County, the Sta. Rita Hills appellation is a hilly region with cool air and fog from the chilly Pacific Ocean. This cool, coastal climate is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but not for Zinfandel. Located in northern Sonoma, Dry Creek Valley is one of Zinfandel’s top regions. The narrow appellation sits 20 miles east of the Pacific and is protected from the ocean’s influence by a coastal mountain range. Summer days are warm and sunny here, bringing grapes to full ripeness, while the mountains funnel in cool air during the evenings, helping grapes maintain their acidity.

This wine is from Dry Creek Valley.

Age

Zinfandels are generally approachable upon release, though top versions have the structure to age for years in the bottle. But our wine’s plump and zesty character is the hallmark of a younger Zinfandel. With that in mind, let’s look at Zinfandel’s recent vintages in California.

Vintners typically age their Zinfandels for a year or more, with wines spending lengthy time in oak. The 2019 Zinfandels are only just starting to reach the market, and the majority of recent releases are from the 2018 vintage. 2018 was an ideal year for Zinfandel production, offering a warm, even summer that produced rich wines with fresh acidity and layers of red berry and pepper flavors. In contrast, the 2017 vintage kept vintners on their toes with a series of heat spikes during the summer, leading to ripe and brambly Zinfandels with savory accents like grilled meat. California’s vineyards were affected by a drought in 2016, but with an ideal growing season and moderate summer. This led to Zinfandels with dark fruit flavors, plus floral and mineral accents. The structure, acidity and flavors of 2018’s crop seem like the best match.

This Zinfandel is from the 2018 vintage, making it two years old.

Wine

This is the Kokomo Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2018, which scored 92 points in the May 31, 2020, issue of Wine Spectator. It retails for $28, and 1,200 cases were made. For more on California Zinfandel, read senior editor Tim Fish’s tasting report, "Up to the Challenge," in the June 30, 2020, issue.

Augustus Weed, tasting coordinator