Sip some zesty zinfandel

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

California winemakers often like to crow about their cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay and moon over their merlot and malbec as if they were California grapes of their very own. But they’re not. 

All four of the Golden State’s most popular wine grapes are French classics that had their origins in Bordeaux or Burgundy. California winemakers have done wonderful things with them, but the grapes are immigrant varietals.

That’s not the case with zinfandel — sort of. The grape has long been considered native to the States, as American as apple pie and concealed-carry permits. Its time here been traced as far back as 1820s Long Island. 

Then in the 1990s, wine geneticists at the University of California – Davis discovered a genetic link between zinfandel and primitivo, a wine grape widely grown in the Puglia region of Italy’s boot-heel. Illusions were shattered.

But those of us who love the robust, rustic red still embrace zinfandel as our own, and it’s in California where the heartiest are grown. The wine is produced in 13 other U.S. states, but the romance of central Illinois or southern Indiana zin isn’t quite the same. We tend to stick with the California zins we know and love.

Here are a few zins worth your time:

Zinfandel prefers a warm climate and a longer growing season, and Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley provides that for a number of zin vintners, including Frei Brothers. The Frei Brothers 2012 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($19) opens with notes of plum and black cherry, pouring with the rich garnet color virtually all zinfandels possess. The region’s cool maritime influences produce wines well structured in a Bordeaux fashion, providing the Frei Brothers’ zin with mocha and caramel notes and a little cedar and spice on the back palate.

Napa Valley tends to produce more robust wines. The 2011 Buehler Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel ($20) qualifies while still retaining a lightness of body. Produced from a blend of estate-grown grapes and those from other valley producers, the wine seasons its dark fruit palate with essences of tobacco, cinnamon and herbs, delivering a well-balanced and pleasant finish.

The Director’s Cut 2012 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($23) from winemaker and film director Francis Ford Coppola takes us back to familiar territory, but with a less familiar approach. The director of the Godfather series has created a blend of 80 percent zin and 20 percent petite sirah, a small, dark grape with a rich, powerful flavor. The wine’s ample body and velvety palate, with notes of blackberries, pepper and cloves combined with nuances of cherries and mocha, make us glad he didn’t yell, “Cut!” during the winemaking process.

The Duckhorn Wine Co. has always been a personal favorite, and its 2012 Decoy Sonoma County Zinfandel ($24) delivers. Once again, zin and petite sirah create a luscious blend, with a base of dark fruits highlighted by clove and vanilla notes enhanced by the wine’s oak aging. Expect a palate of berries, brambles and Christmas-y spices, supported by polished tannins and a lingering finish.

“Old vine zinfandels,” produced from aging vines that provide a smaller but richer yield, have become very popular, and Girard 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel ($24) has grown to be a favorite. The vintners blend grapes from several Napa Valley vineyards to produce a brighter wine with raspberry and cherry notes, which give way to spice and vanilla bean highlights and a nice mouthfeel that finishes with suitable acidity to make it an excellent dinner wine.

Nearby Mendocino County also grows zinfandel, of which the Artezin 2012 Zinfandel ($25) is a fine representative. The winemaker describes it as a classic fruit-forward “Zinny-Zin.” We’re not sure what that means, but we know that Artezin skews in the direction of bright fruit flavors with a spicy backbone of allspice, cinnamon and pepper. Supple tannins support the wine and even allow it to age for a little while. But why would you want to do that?

The Mayacamas Mountains border both Napa and Sonoma, and that’s where B.R. Cohn Winery harvests the fruit for its 2011 Sonoma Valley Zinfandel ($26). Berry and cherry flavors blend with peppercorn and clove in this full-bodied wine with a nice mouthfeel and lingering finish.

Napa’s Rombauer Vineyards adds just a hint of petite sirah to its 2012 Zinfandel ($28) to give it a little richer character. Expect the usual flavors of raspberry, cloves and pepper, with just a hint of boysenberry and vanilla, combining into a velvety wine with a long, supple finish.

The winemakers at Frog’s Leap have always done things a little differently, and their 2011 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($29) is an example of that. The wine, 85 percent zinfandel balanced by 14.5 percent petite sirah and just a hint of carignan, is not a big fruit bomb like so many California wines. Rather, the Frog’s Leap is taut and refined with an almost-Old World character, while offering a burst of summer fruits like strawberry, raspberry and fig. Like other Frog’s Leap wines, this one is nicely done.

One of our earliest introductions to Zinfandel came via Seghesio Family Vineyards, and we have never stopped admiring their work. The 2012 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel ($39) is one of the better wines the Sonoma winemakers have to offer. Red fruits, green pepper and bright spice characterize the nose, while briar, berries and mocha flavor the palate. Sourced from vines reportedly 50 years old, this full-bodied, complex wine is ready now, or it can be cellared for four to five years while it further refines itself. 

That’s assuming you can wait that long.