Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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Seven Deadly Zins
by Jonathon Alsop
June 2000

If you took a wine map of France and overlayed a cheese map of France and a livestock map as well, you'd find the wine and the cheese and the meat lining up beautifully. You'd find the same thing if you used maps of Italy or Greece, any place they've been making wine for more than a thousand years. Listening to your elders -- or your ancients, in this case -- is the best way to match up wine and food in a traditional way.

But what about new, untraditional wine nations like the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the like, places that have only been making wine for the last 20 minutes or so? Newborn wine regions don't have the benefit of centuries of eating, drinking, harvesting, and wine making, and when they present some untested grape, people automatically ask what you would eat with it.

Zinfandel -- the closest thing America has to a "native" wine grape -- is free from the burden of a direct European history thanks to a greenhouse mixup back in the 1800s. This clerical error unleashed onto the California landscape a fast-growing red grape from who-knows-where with a name tag that said "zin-something," and the rest is history.

Today, zinfandel is significantly ahead of both cabernet and merlot in tons of grapes produced, and it's just now starting to get respect along with affection. Too many years in the public eye as a cheap pink wine -- white zin -- has slowed the admiration process a bit.

I'll say it even though I'm surely not the first: zinfandel is America's best wine, and it goes great with everything summer, especially the grill. In general, even modest zinfandel is a potent wine: fruity, spicy, aromatic and tannic enough to stand up to sauces and flame. Zin at it biggest and brawniest -- body-builder wines from Ridge, for instance -- easily rivals two other grill favorites, cabernet and merlot, for intensity and flavor.

Plots of zinfandel that are now approaching 100 years of age produce awe-inspiring wines of deep concentration, soaring perfume, and monumental structure that, unlike most things in life, may age well. When I told a winemaker in Italy that our 75 year-old zinfandel vines are considered "old vine" plantings, he scoffed and said, "So what? I'm 75 years old too!"

American wine isn't about history, at least not for another couple of centuries. Even if we Americans had a food and wine history to guide us, we'd find some way to work around it anyway. We like to think we're a people of today while we worship a sunny future. If we played the overlaying map game with zinfandel, you could make a case for using a weather map, where zinfandel matches up perfectly with the endless summer and its battle wagon, the backyard grill.

NOTE: Although a couple of the more expensive wines may be tricky to get ahold of, all these wines are locally distributed and should be readily available at most medium to large wine shops around Boston.

Vigil "Mohr-Frye" Zinfandel (about $23): Looking back on my notes from a taste-and-spit fest of literally hundreds of wines, I see a note next to the Vigil Mohr-Frye that is the highest praise possible under the circumstances: "I drank it!" Rich and chewy, big and bold, this monster zin will stand up to the richest, spiciest barbecue. Vigil's range of wines include some delicious and less-expensive blends as well.

Fife Zinfandel (about $20): Bold, graphical presentations on the outside of the bottle promise much, and Fife delivers. Huge tannins and a big fruit bomb balance each other perfectly. After tasting through the whole range of Fife zins, I'm just as happy with this one as any of the more expensive varieties, although the "Red Head" Zinfandel is especially over the top. Save this one for the 4th of July when you can appropriately put fireworks with it.

Pedroncelli "Mother Clone" Zinfandel (about $15): Thank history for the Italian-Americans who kept many vineyards and much wine making alive in California during Prohibition. Thanks to the Parducci, Mondavi, Pagani, Foppiano, Pedroncelli, and other families, we have old-vine zins like this "Mother Clone," presumably the mother of all Pedroncelli zins, both literally and figuratively. Stately, dense and concentrated with raspberry and blackberry flavors, its style is Bordeaux and its core is 100 percent California.

Ravenswood Zinfandel (about $12): Ravenswood led the charge in the early 90s for a more robust style of red zin that rejected the white zin ethos completely with the battle cry "No Wimpy Wines!" Today, Ravenswood is a stalwart producer of a whole line of zins from $12 to single vineyards that are off the chart, none of which knows what the word "wimpy" means. Classic and proud, even the entry-level bottling shows off that traditional dried fruit, blackberry and spice blend that is pure Ravenswood. Buy the 98 especially.

Rabbit Ridge "Barrel Cuvee" Zinfandel (about $10): If you love oak, you're going to love this specimen. Batches of this most affordable Rabbit Ridge can be variable, from just mind-bending to really good but over-oaked, and most people love the oak, so it's easy to recommend. If you spot any single-vineyard RR zin under $20, go for it.

Rosenblum "Vintner's Cuvee" Zinfandel (about $10): Another bargain zin blended with other cabernet and mourvedre, another ignored grape until recently. The blending of this wine is masterly, the mourvedre adding color, cabernet adding bass notes, and the zin never losing its flavor. I'll drink this wine anytime.

Pervini, "Archidamo" Primitivo di Manduria (about $10): Granted, this wine is a ringer so to speak, tossed into the mix to keep things interesting, since recent scientific testing reveals that Italian Primitivo is the genetic parent of California zinfandel. The family resemblance is strong with those same dark fruit flavors and great tannins. Archidamo was an ancient Greek warrior-king who laid waste to this part of Italy some millennia ago, but all seems forgiven having tasted this beauty. Great with sauteed olives and artichokes with a little crumbly feta cheese on the side.

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