In California, the amount of Zinfandel vineyards is plentiful—so plentiful that the varietal is grown in eight regions across the state, each containing a significant amount of their own individual American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). With that being said, the Zinfandel produced in each AVA exhibits the same richness and intensity and yet still maintains unique characteristics as a result of terroir, vineyard management and practices, as well as the winemaking techniques involved after the fruit has been harvested. Stacy Slinkard states that "California is the epitome of a New World wine-growing region, embracing technology yet tipping its hat toward the art, science, and tradition of the Old World," and it certainly shows in the beautiful range of Zinfandel produced across the state (Idiot's Guide: Wine).
Zinfandel Advocates & Producers
Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP)—an organization "dedicated to advancing public knowledge of and appreciation for American Zinfandel and its unique place in our culture and history"—would certainly agree that the Zinfandel produced in California exhibits the best practices and techniques of both the New and Old Worlds (ZAP). ZAP states that "Zinfandel established its own tradition in California and has become known as America’s Heritage wine. Zinfandel’s history is . . . transforming from a little-known grape into one that has achieved such tremendous popularity that it has grown on more than 50,000 acres in the United States." As a result of the prolific amount of Zinfandel being produced in California, it seems only appropriate to explore and taste California Zinfandel across the AVAs.
California Wine Growing Regions & AVAs
Five wineries—Kokomo Winery, Robert Biale Vineyards, m2 Wines, Easton Wines, and Peachy Canyon Winery—have participated in this California Zinfandel tasting experience. Each of these wineries represents a different California AVA and has produced at least one vintage of 2012 Zinfandel with fruit grown in that AVA.
From Sonoma County, Kokomo Winery produces the Timber Crest Vineyard Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley. The 2012 Timber Crest Vineyard Zinfandel is made from 95% Zinfandel and 5% Petite Sirah fruit, and then aged 11 months in 25% new French and European oak barrels. The small amount of added Petite Sirah darkens the fruit flavors in this silky textured wine, while the barrel aging gives it a rich vanilla flavor; the fruit has baked pie flavors to it as well.
Just east, across the Mayacamas Mountains, is Napa Valley. Representing Napa Valley is Robert Biale Vineyards, producing the Black Chicken Zinfandel from the Oak Knoll District. The 2012 Black Chicken Zinfandel is made from100% Zinfandel fruit and then aged in 20% new Burgundian oak barrels. This Zinfandel also exhibits dark fruit characteristics with a lovely touch of oak and black pepper spice on the palate.
Continuing further east from Sonoma and Napa Counties is the Central Valley of California. This wine growing region is home to Lodi in Joaquin County. m2 Wines is located in Lodi and produces the Soucie Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel. The 2012 Soucie Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel is made from 98% Zinfandel and 2% Petite Sirah fruit, and then aged in 20-25% new American oak barrels. The loamy, fertile soil of the Central Valley creates ripe fruit and intense bright fruit flavors, such as raspberry and cherry, accompanied by subtle oak, coffee, and cocoa notes.
The Sierra Foothills—an area which includes Amador County—is where Easton Wines is located. Easton Wines produces the Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel from Amador County. The 2012 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel is made from 100% Zinfandel fruit and then aged in mostly French oak, with a few new French oak barrels. This Zinfandel has a lighter body than the other Zinfandels and exhibits baked fruit flavors with subtle notes of coffee and smoke.
Peachy Canyon Winery, located in Paso Robles in the Central Coast wine growing region, produces the Bailey Zinfanel. The 2012 Bailey Zinfandel is made from 100% Zinfandel fruit and then aged in French and Hungarian oak barrels. The strong flavor of dark raspberry that fades into blueberry is complemented by the subtle vanilla and oak notes in this full bodied Zinfandel.
Factors that Create Differences in Zinfandel
As one can see, each Zinfandel showcased here is made with a minimum of 95% Zinfandel fruit. Each wine is then barreled in oak that possesses various percentages of newness and comes from several places around the world. The influence of new oak certainly creates distinguishable characteristics from that of the wines that are not aged in new oak. Furthermore, the percentage of Zinfandel fruit also plays a role in the intensity of flavors and the balance between dark and bright fruit notes in the wine.
Another aspect that affects the flavors and textures of each Zinfandel differently is the alcohol content. Higher alcohol content can result in baked fruit flavors, higher viscosity in texture, and lower levels of tannin—though each winemaker can ultimately use techniques to decrease or increase these attributes that may come as a result of warm California weather and potential harvesting of grapes at higher brix levels. In this tasting, the wines range from 14.5%-15.8% alcohol—certainly indicating harvests at various brix levels and of course nodding to the terroir of each region and AVA.
Terroir is a major factor in the flavor and texture of a wine because it "encompasses everything from the dirt the vines are cultivated in, the geography of the region at large, and the hillside topography of the specific vineyard, to the amount of sun a place does or doesn’t receive, irrigation and drainage issues, and the impact of climate and weather patterns," Slinkard states. The "unique combination of growing conditions that a vineyard has" absolutely shows when tasting the various Zinfandels (Wine Style). Each wine possesses similar characteristics, but simultaneously exhibits unique flavors and textures that make each Zinfandel complex and pleasurably distinguishable from one another.
Kokomo Winery, Sonoma County
The 2012 Timber Crest Vineyard Zinfandel from Kokomo Winery possesses aromas of baked raspberry and bright strawberry fruit with lovely accents of oak, vanilla, and baking spices. When the wine is first opened, it is full bodied and silky in texture with delicious notes of ripe blackberry, black cherry, and blueberry fruit. The aromas of vanilla and oak are also present on the palate and provide nice contrast against the ripe flavors of the fruit. After the wine has had time to breathe, the aroma of this complex Zinfandel becomes more herbaceous—letting off scents of subtle bell pepper and earth. On the palate, the wine's full body and silky texture still remain, but the finish is brighter with notes of red cherry and more noticeable tannins than when first opened.
Robert Biale Vineyards, Napa County
The 2012 Black Chicken Zinfandel from Robert Biale Vineyards—which has gained a sort of cult following in Napa and Sonoma Counties—exhibits distinct aromas of candied blackberry, dark raspberry, and sweet oak. On the palate—when first opened—this Zinfandel is heavy in body and dark in fruit with rich blackberry and black cherry notes. Black pepper spice lingers in the background of this smooth textured wine and on the finish, medium level tannins and a touch of oak grace the tongue. Once opened for a while, the Black Chicken gives off more predominant scents of oak and vanilla. In the mouth, the wine's finish becomes longer and darker with fantastic flavors of dark blackberry, roasted coffee, voluptuous vanilla, and sweet oak with a touch of caramel hidden underneath.
m2 Wines, Lodi
Different from the Kokomo and Biale Zinfandels, m2 Wines' 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel—the only winery to put forth Zinfandel made from ninety-eight year old vines— reveals strong aromas of oak and vanilla, but little fruit before it has had time to breathe. On the palate, the wine presents wonderful, bright raspberry fruit alongside oak, coffee, and cocoa on the finish. The medium body of this Zinfandel is complemented by the heavy toasted flavors on the palate and a lingering finish. When the wine has been open for a while, both the texture and flavor begins to evolve—gaining complexity and intricacy with air exposure, as is often the case with old vine Zinfandel. During the second taste, the body of this beautiful Zinfandel becomes fuller and rounder; the fruit flavors fade into dark black cherry and riper raspberry than on the first taste, and stronger hints of the 20-25% medium-plus toasted, new American oak barrels are present.
Easton Wines, Sierra Foothills
The 2012 Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel from Easton Wines has bright fruit aromas of ripe raspberry and red cherry, though the scent of oak is not present as a result of not using a significant amount of new oak during barrel aging. In the mouth, this Zinfandel delights with candied flavors of blackberry pie and baked strawberry. Subtle notes of coffee and smoke remain in the background of the wine, but are pleasurably noticeable on the palate. The texture is lighter in body than other Zinfandels, making this particular style of Zinfandel an excellent choice for food and wine pairing. After the wine has had time to breathe, the oak becomes ever present on the nose, along with stronger notes of coffee and consistent raspberry. The exposure to air gives this Zinfandel brighter fruit notes on the palate and the wine begins to burst with wonderful red cherry and cranberry flavors.
Peachy Canyon Winery, Paso Robles
Aromas of blackberry and blueberry on top of bell pepper, white pepper, and subtle oak abound in the 2012 Bailey Zinfandel from Peachy Canyon Winery. Flavors of dark raspberry and blackberry overwhelm the palate in a pleasing manner. The smooth, full body fills the mouth and the finish is long, bright and earthy with flavors of subtle mushroom. Once opened for a while, the aroma exhibits stronger notes of oak and vanilla, while the palate presents more blueberry fruit, stronger vanilla, richer tannins, and an even fuller body compared to when it was first opened. The pleasant oak and vanilla on the finish lingers on the tongue, even after the wine is swallowed.
As one can see, California Zinfandel is complex and versatile in nature. One Zinfandel from a specific region with certain terroir and winemaking practices may be better for an individual palate than a Zinfandel grown in another region with different terroir and winemaking practices. Ultimately, the best Zinfandel is the one that speaks to the individuality of one's palate. Explore California Zinfandel by experiencing and tasting Zinfandel from across the AVAs to educate your palate and learn which style best suits you.