Wine & Beer

Zinfandel is back, thanks to winemakers’ tweaks

Zinfandel has not been my favorite California red in recent years. Far from it. Much of it was too jammy, pruney and alcoholic. I found such wines exhausting to drink. Still, it’s my job to taste wines of all types, so I continued to sample zinfandels on a semi-regular basis.

And I started to notice something. I was enjoying zinfandel again. There are still plenty of over-the-top examples out there, but I was tasting a fair number of zins that were more balanced, even elegant. I certainly don’t taste every zin that’s produced, so I wondered whether my anecdotal observation was just a function of the wines I was tasting.

Rebecca Robinson, executive director of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) since 1997, offered some support for my view. “There’s a focus on balance,” she says. “I think to a degree that zinfandel is returning to its roots.” She adds that more winemakers are trying to make zins that will pair well with food. “Wine and food,” Robinson says. “It’s such a basic thing.”

Robinson also notes that there have been “some really great vintages” lately, in which winemakers have been able to get ripe flavors at lower sugars and, thus, lower alcohol. That’s a point that was echoed by Tres Goetting, winemaker for Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa.

That said, Goetting also thinks more zin producers “are trying to pull back the reins a little bit.” That’s what he’s attempting to do at Biale, which in the past has been known for wines with big, very ripe flavors. The current Biale releases, from the 2013 vintage, have plenty of fruit, but they’re also fresh and balanced. Goetting says he’s trying to pick a little earlier to preserve acidity and to “make the wines a little more elegant.”

A good example is the 2013 Robert Biale “Black Chicken” Zinfandel ($45), which is ripe yet lively, with brambly berry fruit and firm structure.

Ridge and Ravenswood are longtime producers of zins that, generally, are well-balanced rather than over the top. Some of Ridge’s best zin-dominant wines are field blends, like the 2013 Ridge Geyserville ($38), which is lively, spicy and concentrated, and the 2013 Ridge Lytton Springs ($38), which adds a hint of lavender. Both are about three-quarters zin. Also very good is the 2013 Ridge “East Bench” Zinfandel ($28) from Dry Creek Valley, with its concentrated, spicy blackberry fruit and firm tannins.

Ravenswood’s top zins are its limited-production, single-vineyard wines, like the 2013 Ravenswood Belloni Zinfandel ($35), with its lively berry and hint of tobacco, and the fresh, spicy 2013 Ravenswood Big River Zinfandel ($35).

I’ve recently tasted a number of good zins that are much less expensive, too. Ravenswood, for example, has its modestly priced Vintners Blend Zinfandel ($10). Kendall-Jackson’s 2013 Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel ($17) from Mendocino County is brambly and spicy, with bright berry. And the 2013 Motto “Unabashed” Zinfandel ($15) is a medium-weight zin with ripe yet bright berry and a note of tobacco.

Pick of the week

Vina Robles 2014 Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($16) If you’re looking for a refreshing white as an aperitif or a partner for shellfish, try this one. It’s crisp and citrusy, with pink grapefruit, an herbal note and a persistent finish.

— Laurie Daniel