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.