Zinfandel may be the most widely planted and misunderstood grape variety in California. The debate continues as to its origin but research indicates it’s the Primitivo variety of Italy’s Apuglia region. Many of America’s early wine pioneers were Italian and they brought the grapes of their home country. Zinfandel was planted in many of the early California vineyards in the 18th century and the sturdiest vines can be over a century old today.
California labeling in the early days was mostly generic and much of the Zinfandel was used in blends labeled Burgundy or Chianti. With varietal labeling, Cabernet ascended to the throne and Zinfandel lost some recognition. Americans have always had a sweet tooth and in the 1980s white Zinfandel became the craze. It was lightly sweet, inexpensive and available in huge quantities. It surely saved some old vineyards of top quality from becoming sites for condominiums or shopping malls.
Interest in red Zinfandel never ceased but has grown steadily through the efforts of specialists like Ridge, Ravenswood and Renwood, to name a few. Their single-vineyard wines have illustrated the subtleties of terroir in the variety. Wines from Lodi generally are big and rich with deep color while mountain fruit from Lake County’s mountain vineyards can be more firm and structured.
These are wines well worth seeking and, for quality, are among the best values available.
Contra Costa is east of San Francisco Bay and gets cool breezes which allow the grapes to retain freshness. There are some century vines in this area. $15
Amador County is a blast from the past with towns still reminiscent of the gold rush. Many vines there are over a century and thick as tree trunks. Crops are low but of spectacular style. $20
This single vineyard is of ancient, low-producing vines near Fiddletown in Amador. It’s allocated every year but well worth seeking. $30
Shannon Ridge’s Two Bud is from a mountain vineyard of dry soil which gets ample sun and produces one of the most subtle and nuanced Zinfandels of California. $25
Seghesio Zinfandel Sonoma
Seghesio’s focus has always been Zinfandel and their Sonoma bottling is consistently one of the best values for price compared to ratings. $23
Carol Shelton has received strong press for this Zinfandel. Mendocino is a bit off the beaten wine path but there are top old vineyards there. $25
Paul Draper has produced wines from vineyards based on Zinfandel but has left the other varieties often found in these old vineyards in the blend. This one is Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet. $27
Brad Lewis, Wine Connoisseur